Copyright 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
The University of New Mexico volleyball team's home schedule for next season currently lacks just one thing — a definitive home court.
Thanks to a $35 million renovation/expansion project that recently broke ground at Johnson Center, it's uncertain whether UNM will be able to host matches at its normal on-campus venue in 2018. The renovation project does not directly impact Johnson Center's main gymnasium but it will result in entrance/exit and parking-lot closures that will impact UNM's volleyball program and its fans.
Fire-safety regulations that greatly reduce Johnson Center's capacity for home matches during construction have UNM athletic officials considering their options.
"Some doors into the building will be closed off during construction, which affects fire safety," said Ed Manzanares, UNM's associate athletic director for sports administration. "They'll also be re-doing the parking areas around Johnson, which will be an issue for fans. We have to decide what our best solution will be."
Manzanares said an athletic staff meeting will be held in the coming days to discuss options for the upcoming volleyball season. The Lobos will likely play in front of limited crowds at Johnson Center or at spacious Dreamstyle Arena.
Part of the decision will hinge on "hard numbers," Manzanares said, concerning how many fans the Albuquerque Fire Marshal's Office will permit in Johnson Center during home matches and how those figures will impact UNM's home attendance.
Lobos coach Jeff Nelson said the restrictions could limit occupancy to roughly 700 people for weeknight matches when classes are in session in the Johnson Center. The occupancy limit would increase to around 1,000 for Saturday matches, Nelson said. Those numbers include players, coaches and event staff in addition to fans.
New Mexico averaged 843 fans per home match last season with crowds ranging from 685 fans for a Friday afternoon match to 1,126 for two evening contests.
If UNM opts to play home matches in Johnson Center next season as currently scheduled, bleacher seats on the floor level would be eliminated. In that case, Nelson said his players would prefer to move to the Pit.
"Our players normally prefer Johnson, but if we eliminate the bleachers our fans will be separated from the court by quite a distance," he said. "The atmosphere wouldn't be the same, and our seniors have told me they'd rather play at the Pit so fans can be closer."
UNM has scheduled home matches at the Pit occasionally in recent years, most either to accommodate large crowds or to avoid parking conflicts with same-night events at Popejoy Hall, which is located adjacent to Johnson Center.
"The Pit is a fantastic facility," Nelson said, "but there are some concerns with playing there. Depth perception is very different in large venues, so we'd need to practice there at least occasionally to be able to adjust. There aren't a lot of conflicts with basketball until the very end of our season, but that's another thing you have to consider."
The Johnson Center renovation/expansion project is expected to last until early 2020. Plans call for expanded weight/ cardio fitness areas, an indoor track and an enlarged bike shop among other improvements, all of them funded by student fees.
Various entrances to Johnson Center may be closed during construction as will parking areas around the facility. The closures could make things tricky for fans attending UNM volleyball matches next season and possibly in 2019, depending on how construction progresses.
"As of right now, we're planning to play at Johnson Center," Manzanares said, "but we've got the Pit as a backup plan and it's not the end of the world if we have to play there."
ADDITIONS: UNM added a weapon to its arsenal Wednesday when outside hitter Tai Bierria signed to join the Lobos as a transfer.
Bierria, a 6-foot-1 rising junior, started 18 matches for Memphis last season, averaging 2.74 kills and 2.79 digs per set. She will be eligible to play during the upcoming indoor season as NCAA rules do not require volleyball transfers to sit out.
"Tai is a very gifted athlete who has a good chance to play for us right away," Nelson said. "She'll be a great addition."
Bierria played prep volleyball at Walton High in Marietta, Ga., where she helped her team to a Class 6A state title as a senior.
The Lobos also picked up a commitment for 2019 this week. Amya Small, a rising senior at Upland High School in Upland, Calif., announced her intention to play at UNM via Twitter.
Small is a 6-foot middle blocker who averaged 2.7 kills per set last season. She plays club volleyball for Forza 1 based in Ontario, Calif.
Nelson confirmed UNM is recruiting Small but NCAA rules prohibit coaches from otherwise commenting on unsigned players.
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