Lobo Classics: 1991 Volleyball Sweeps Through WAC; Advances to NCAA Second Round
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A quick look through the University of New Mexico volleyball record book, particularly the section on coaching records, is all that it would take to identify the “Golden Era” of the program. Over a four-year stretch from 1988 – 1991, there were few other volleyball programs around that achieved the success that the Lobo volleyball program did.
In that time, under the direction of head coach Laurel Brassey*, the Lobo volleyball program amassed a 92-23 (.800) overall record and lost just eight conference matches across associations in the High Country Athletic Conference (HCAC) and the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The Lobos also claimed a pair of conference championships during that time and made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
(*NOTE – Blase Czerniakowski served as interim head coach of the program for much of the 1988 season as Brassey was on leave to play with the U.S. National Team.)
Beginning in 1988, the Lobos posted a 25-5 record overall and went 10-2 in the HCAC to claim their first-ever conference championship. At the end of the season, the Lobos had earned their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1981. The following year, the Lobos missed out on the NCAA Tournament, but still won over 20 matches and finished with a 22-5 overall record.
Over the course of the next two seasons, the Lobo volleyball program would reach new heights and established themselves as contenders on the national level, ranking in and around the Top-10 throughout both years.
In 1990, the Lobos were in their first year as members of the WAC and ended up finishing second in the league standings behind national powerhouse BYU. Overall, the 1990 Lobos once more won over 20 matches and made a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Unlike their appearance in 1988, however, the 1990 Lobos advanced to the second round of the tournament after beating Pepperdine 3-0.
That win sent the Lobos to the regional semifinals where they ran up against eventual National Champion, UCLA. Already with four national championships to their credit, the UCLA Bruins were nearly perfect in 1990 losing only one match that year, a 3-2 loss to perennial power Nebraska in the fourth match of the season. During the Bruins’ march towards the national championship, the only team to hand UCLA a game loss was the Lobos. After dropping the first game 15-8, the Lobos bounced back and won the second game 15-11 to tie the match at 1-all. UCLA claimed the third game and sealed the deal in the fourth, but not before the Lobos nearly forced a decisive fifth game, losing the fourth game 16-14.
While the success of the 1990 Lobo volleyball team was a remarkable achievement on its own accord, the achievements of the following year’s team are equally, if not more impressive and the central focus of this week’s Lobo Classics.
With the level of success that the 1990 Lobo volleyball team enjoyed, there was no doubt that the 1991 Lobo volleyball team had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, the 1991 Lobos had Coach Brassey, the 1990 WAC Coach of the Year, still at the helm as well as the return services of several key players including Sharon Browning and Pauline Manser.
Both natives of Australia, Browning and Manser were each all-conference and all-region players in 1990 with Manser being a first team performer, and Browning a second teamer. In addition to her first team honors on the conference and regional level, Manser also went on to add first team All-America honors; making the program’s first-ever first team All-American.
With that trio on hand and the wealth of experience gained over the previous three seasons, confidence was understandably high going into the 1991 season. However, the start to the 1991 season did not start out on fire out of the gate. Ranked 10th in the AVCA Preseason Top-20, the Lobos were just 3-3 through the first six matches of the season.
That modest record early in the season is very misleading, however, thanks to the Lobos’ strength of schedule. The year prior in 1990, the Lobos ended up taking on the fifth-toughest schedule in the country according to the AVCA and that tough schedule aided in the Lobos earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament that year.
The 1991 slate of matches put together by Coach Brassey was no different and went on to be lauded as the toughest schedule in all of NCAA Division I by the AVCA by season’s end. From the outset of that schedule, the Lobos were slated to take on eight teams that were ranked in the AVCA’s Preseason Top-20 poll with the highest preseason ranked opponent being No. 2 Stanford on the road. The Lobos were also scheduled to clash with preseason nationally-ranked opponents within their own conference in the likes of BYU and San Diego State.
In all, the Lobos ended up playing 10 matches against nationally-ranked competition and went 6-4. The Lobos also posted wins over three teams that at one point were nationally-ranked during the season.
During that initial 3-3 start to the season, the Lobos faced off with nationally-ranked No. 12 UC Santa Barbara and No. 6 Long Beach State. The Lobos would go 1-1 against those opponents beating UC-Santa Barbara and losing on the road at Long Beach State.
With no letup in their schedule, the Lobos bounced back from that 3-3 start and took huge games in succession over nationally-ranked No. 5 Nebraska and No. 8 Texas. Those wins sparked what turned out to be a 19-2 record to close out the regular season. The only two losses for the Lobos during that stretch came on the road at No. 6 LSU and No. 2 Stanford.
Prior to entering the NCAA Tournament, the Lobos were riding a 15-match winning streak with their last loss being a five-game heartbreaker at No. 2 Stanford. Along the way, the Lobos breezed through their WAC schedule en route to an unblemished 12-0 mark. Without a doubt, the two biggest games on the Lobos’ conference schedule were against the Cougars of BYU.
Historically up until that point, the series between the Lobos and Cougars was very much one-sided. With records of their all-time series dating back to 1970, the Lobos were a mere 4-30 against BYU heading into the 1991 season. While there was obviously was a great disparity in the all-time record between the two up until that point, the Lobos had begun to have success against BYU beginning in 1988 and were 4-2 against the Cougars during those three seasons. In fact, the Lobos were the lone team to beat BYU in WAC play in the leagues’ inaugural season in 1990 as the Cougars went on to 9-1 en route to the WAC Championship.
In the 1991 season, the Lobos knocked off the Cougars twice and once more were the only team in the WAC to lay claim to a win over BYU in conference play. In each of those matches, the Cougars were nationally-ranked checking in at No. 6 and No. 11, respectively.
The first of those highly-anticipated matches with BYU came at home for the Lobos, where over the past few seasons, they had pulled in one of the best fan bases in all of the country. In 1990, the Lobos ranked seventh nationally and first in the WAC in attendance with an average of 1,576 fans per match. In fact, the Lobos also posted the highest attended NCAA match that year with over 6,152 fans filed into University Arena – The Pit. During the course of the 1991 season, the attendance average increased nearly 1,000 fans per match as the Lobos pulled in an average of 2,349 fans per match to rank fourth nationally.
In that first match with BYU, the Cougars took the opening game 15-8, but the Lobos bounced back and won the next three games to take the match 3-1. Less than a month later, the two met once again, this time in Provo with the WAC Regular Season Championship hanging in the balance. The Lobos would capture the first two games before the Cougars staved off a sweep with a 15-11 win in the third game. The Lobos emphatically took the fourth game by a score of 15-6 effectively sealing their first WAC Championship.
With an unblemished WAC Regular Season Championship in hand, the Lobos then turned their attention toward a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
This year, the Lobos drew Washington State in their opening round matchup. As they did the year prior, the Lobos won their opening round game and advanced to the second round where once again vaunted UCLA awaited.
Coming off their aforementioned National Championship in 1990, the Bruins had their sights set on a repeat title in 1991. Unlike the previous season where the Bruins lost only one match, the 1991 Bruins suffered five defeats during the course of the season. Despite that, the Lobos knew that they were in for an extremely tough task facing the Bruins.
The Lobos would end up getting swept by the Bruins in the match, but the Lobos were valiant in defeat as each game was closely contested with scores of 15-12, 15-10, 15-10. UCLA went on to sweep their next two opponents before capping off their National Championship repeat with a five-game thriller against Long Beach State.
Indeed the 1991 Lobo volleyball season was special and capped a remarkable four-year run for the program. As a team, the Lobos ended the year ranked No. 8 in the AVCA poll, the highest ranking ever achieved in the program. Individually, Laurel Brassey repeated as WAC Coach of the Year while Pauline Manser took home WAC Player of the Year honors. Manser also repeated as a first team All-American.
About Lobo Classics
The goal of the “Lobo Classics” series is to highlight some of the greatest moments in the history of UNM Athletics. These types of moments can consist of specific games, individual performances, record-breaking achievements or even entire championship seasons. It is our intention that during this period of uncertainty, we can bring some joy and happiness to our unwaveringly loyal fans that make up Lobo Nation!
As part of this endeavor, Lobo Athletics wants to make this an interactive project and are opening up for suggestions from Lobo fans everywhere. Fans can make suggestions that they would like to see highlighted in “Lobo Classics” by tweeting to @UNMLobos and using the hashtag #LoboClassics. Fans can also submit suggestions through email: email@example.com.