Stevens: Vela's Lobos Face Do-Or-Die Scenario at MW Championships

Oct. 31, 2012

New Mexico Lobos Women's Soccer - Mountain West Tournament - San Diego

Wednesday's Quarterfinals: Game 1 - No. 3 Boise State vs. No. 6 Nevada, 4 p.m. (PT). Game 2 - No. 4 UNLV vs. No. 5 Fresno State, 7 p.m. (PT)
Friday's Semifinals: No. 2 New Mexico vs. Game 1 winner, 4 p.m. (PT)-5 p.m. (MT). No. 1 San Diego State vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (PT)
Sunday's Championship: Semifinal winners, 1 p.m. (PT).

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

In a New Mexico soccer season once again marked by excellence on the pitch, Kit Vela's Lobos find themselves in a win-or-end-the-season scenario.

The scenario set in scenic San Diego is called the Mountain West Championships. Vela's gutsy Lobos have to run the table - win two - or likely their season will end.

"I would say we have to win the conference tournament to go (to the College Cup)," said Vela, whose Lobos went to the NCAA postseason in 2010 and 2011.

Of course, it won't be easy to win the MW trophy in San Diego. The Mountain West has been a dog-eat-dog league most of the season with one top dog doing most of the eating.

The San Diego State Aztecs finished undefeated and untied in league at 7-0 to highlight their overall gaudy slate of 17-1-1. The Aztecs' only loss was to now No. 1 Stanford.

The Aztecs are the No. 1 seed and ranked No. 6/9 in the nation. The Lobos (10-6-2, 4-2-1) are the No. 2 seed and both the Aztecs and the Lobos got a first-round bye bumping them into Friday's semifinals.

UNM will play the winner of Wednesday's quarterfinal between No. 3 seed Boise State (9-8-2, 4-2-1) and No. 6 seed Nevada (6-9-3, 2-3-2). The Aztecs will get the survivor of No. 4 seed UNLV (11-3.4, 3-1-3) and No. 5 Fresno State (4-10-5, 2-3-2).

"We are looking forward to going back to San Diego and we are happy we played on their field under the lights," said Vela, referring to last week's 1-0 loss at SDSU. "It was good to get a good feel for what the field and the environment was all about prior to going to the conference tournament."

Of course, the Lobos also got a feel for San Diego State. The Aztecs are basically what the Lobos were last year to the Mountain: Mountain West regular-season champions and a team that had the league's Offensive and Defensive Player of The Year.

Aztec Megan Jurado led the conference with 34 points (13 goals, eight assists) and Palmer anchored a defense that record eight shutouts and a 0.57 goals-against average. The Aztecs also have an outstanding keeper in Rachel Boaz, who leads the conference with 52 saves against 10 goals allowed (.839 percentage).

If the two top seeds advance, the Lobos will have to get past a red-hot Aztecs team on Aztec ground. That game might not mean quite as much to San Diego State, a lock for an NCAA at-large bid.

"I think it could have gone either way," Vela said of her team's 1-0 loss to SDSU. "We had one miscue and one goal against us. They (SDSU) were very good on the night.

"San Diego State is on a roll. They are doing some simple things well that we didn't do well and that's how we lost the game. It's good for the girls to see that and say, `We're right there with a team that's ranked sixth in the country."

Before the Lobos can think about their opponent in the championship game, they have to get past the Boise State/Nevada winner. Boise has the better seed and beat Nevada in regular season. The Lobos beat both those squads by 1-0 scores, but they were close games statistically.

Boise State had 15 shots and four on-goal while UNM countered with 17 shots, six on-goal. Nevada actually outshot UNM 12-to-11, but the Lobos had one more shot on-goal, 3-to-2.

If you go by the 2012 All-Mountain West Team, the Aztecs might have the tougher draw -- if UNLV gets past Fresno State. The Aztecs dominated the All-MW team with five players, but UNLV was a strong second with four All-MW Rebels. UNM had one player, Rachel Montoya, on First Team.

Vela says the balance in the conference will make this tournament tough for all teams.

The Rebels of UNLV actually handed UNM its worst defeat in conference on the scoreboard at 2-0. No other Lobo game in MW play was decided by more than a goal. SDSU beat UNLV 2-1.

The Lobos are much like SDSU in fielding a team that is extremely tough on defense. UNM keeper Kelli Cornell was the 2011 Defensive Player of The Year. Cornell has 46 saves against 16 goals allowed for a .742 percentage.

The Aztecs' edge is offensively. They scored three goals on Nevada, Fresno State, Wyoming and Air Force. The Lobos were the only Mountain team to limit the Aztecs to a single goal. Stanford also beat SDSU 1-0.

The Aztecs have taken 303 shots in 19 games and UNM has launched 219 shots in 18 games. SDSU has 36 goals on the year and UNM has 21.

In Mountain West games, the Aztecs scored 16 goals and allowed three. UNM scored six goals and allowed five. UNM was 1-2-1 away from Albuquerque with the solo win coming at Nevada.

UNLV's defense was as tight at SDSU's as the Rebels also allowed only three goals in league play. However, UNLV was hurt by an offense that scored only 12 points.

The Aztecs are the only team in the MW Championships to riding a winning streak of more than a game. SDSU is on a 10-game roll. The Aztecs led the Mountain (all games) in shots, points, goals, goals-per-game, assists, assists-per-game, goals allowed, goals-against average, and shutouts.

Montoya tops the UNM scoring charts with five goals and four assists. That ties her for the No. 6 spot in MW scoring. Natalie Jenks leads UNM in shots taken with 35. Fresno State's Callie Hancock has launched 67 shots this season in 19 games.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.