The New Mexico State Aggies (14-5, 5-2) battled the Grand Canyon Antelopes in back-to-back matches last week. The Aggies captured a 3-1 victory in the first match, but dropped the second 3-2.
The Aggies overpowered the Antelopes with offensive aggressiveness in the first match Thursday, Oct. 14, in Las Cruces. They traveled to Phoenix for the second match on Saturday, where they faced the ‘Lopes in the notorious Antelope Gymnasium, but the Aggies were defeated by their own errors.
NMSU has been at the top of the Western Athletic Conference standings all season, followed by the Lopes in second place. As WAC rivals, these teams always bring a large crowd to their much anticipated matchups.
Thursday night, Aggie head coach Mike Jordan returned to the sidelines after sitting out for several matches due to COVID-19 protocols. It was clear the Aggies were more comfortable in their home gym with their head coach and large fan showing.
New Mexico State tends to be a very error prone team in the first sets of a match, and Thursday’s game was no exception. The Aggies lost the first set 25-18, despite powerful kills by junior hitter Katie Birtcil and senior hitter Shaney Lipscomb. Birtcil went on to earn 19 kills on the night, her second highest career number.
The second set in the Pan American Center was a close battle. The offense on both sides was very effective and efforts by the opposing GCU setter Klaire Mitchel caused problems for the NMSU defense. Later, Aggie sophomore hitter Mari Sharp secured several points for her team and the Aggies won 25-21.
In the third and fourth sets, the Aggies had a strong presence at the net. Major blocks by redshirt senior Lia Mosher and hits by Lipscomb, Birtcil and Sharp overwhelmed the Lopes’ defense. NMSU’s strong defense and GCU’s errorful plays kept their hitting percentage low in comparison to the Aggies. The Aggies won both the third and fourth sets 25-18.
Lipscomb and Birtcil were especially powerful in the fourth set and the Lopes were unable to respond. After the game, Birtcil spoke about playing in the packed gym. “It was insane. Not having fans last year was super hard on our team. We really liked the energy of having everyone here and was just so important to our win,” Birtcil said.
Head Coach Mike Jordan was very pleased with his team. “In set one, we rolled out in a lineup we never played before, with Shaney as a number one left, and I think we were a little messy and obviously we were kind of high-error and give [the Lopes] credit — they did a good job. They were low-error. We fell into a pattern, [and] we got a little more comfortable in that rotation and we just executed better,” Jordan said.
Saturday’s match was a different story for the Aggies who lost to the Lopes for the first time since 2014. The match was long and back-and-forth for all five sets, but GCU outlasted NMSU.
The Aggies initially came out with a fighting spirit with blocks by redshirt senior Lia Mosher and seven kills by junior Katie Birtcil. Despite a couple errors, NMSU took the first set 25-20. The momentum then flipped in the second set. The Lopes were strong behind the service line and earned several aces which allowed them to gain a lead. New Mexico State, unable to catch up, dropped the second set 25-21.
Birtcil remained powerful in the third set, and along with senior Cat Kelly, the Aggies completely overtook the Lopes. Aided by the senior setter Carly Aigner-Swesey, New Mexico State had a .550 hitting percentage. The Aggies blew out the Lopes 25-15, but then the fourth set completely flipped.
GCU was able to outlast NMSU in the long-drawn-out rallies of the fourth set. This shifted the momentum back to GCU’s side. Despite efforts by Lipscomb and Birtcil, the Aggies dropped the fourth set 25-22.
It all came down to the short fifth set. It was a constant battle with several ties. Even if it was by one point, the Aggies led for most of the set. Then, GCU’s Ashley Lifgren earned a kill and initiated a 3-0 run that led her team to a 15-13 win.
Mike Jordan spoke on his team’s downfalls after the match. “We were too high-error and gave up too many scoring runs,” Jordan said. “Grand Canyon dug the ball well and out-served us tonight. We have to learn from it and do our jobs more consistently. That all starts with preparing better.”
The Aggies now look to rest and prepare to head back to Phoenix on Thursday, Oct. 21, to face Stephen F. Austin University at 3 p.m. (MDT), followed by Sam Houston State University on Friday, Oct. 22.