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Nov. 7, 2007
LAS VEGAS -
Motivated by snubs and chock-full of talent, UNLV looks to make history
By Dave Reed Special to ESPN.com
Before the 2007 season, the UNLV volleyball program had little credibility at the national level.
The Rebels had never been ranked in the top 25. UNLV had never won a conference title, nor had it ever finished higher than fourth in the standings. And needless to say, the Rebels had never played in the NCAA Tournament.
All that could change in the next four weeks.
The Rebels took their first step toward national respectability with a No. 25 ranking in the latest CSTV/American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll. UNLV became the fourth Mountain West Conference team to be ranked since the conference was formed in 1999, joining BYU, Colorado State and Utah.
And thanks to fourth-year head coach Allison Keeley and a veteran senior class, the Rebels are enjoying the best single season in the program's history and are in position to place UNLV among the elite teams in the MWC.
"It's always hard for that fourth team to get legitimacy at the national level because you always have those strong teams in front of you," Keeley said. "I think it would be great for the conference to get another team in that name recognition pool."
The Rebels have a 10-2 conference record and are tied atop the standings with Colorado State. UNLV will ride an eight-match winning streak into home matches against New Mexico and TCU this weekend, then finish the regular season at Utah and BYU.
Keeley had a hunch her team would be in the thick of the battle for the conference championship. She originally was going to select Colorado State as her preseason favorite, but had a change of heart at the last minute.
"I picked us first," she said. "And they [the other conference coaches] have been making fun of me for it all year. I picked the winner the last three years. I keep picking winners, so I'm going to make sure I pick us.
"We've split with Colorado State the last two years and we've played some really close matches with Utah and BYU, both at home and on the road. Both of those teams lost a couple of key players we had everyone returning, so I just felt this was going to be a good year for us."
That confidence stems from a successful preconference schedule that saw the Rebels defeat teams like Arizona State, UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Marymount. UNLV defeated BYU and Utah on the opening weekend of conference play, and then avenged its only losses on the road by defeating San Diego State and Colorado State at Cox Pavilion, the Rebels' home court.
"We have four seniors who have been playing since they were freshmen," Keeley said. "It's their experience that is making a difference. They've been the impetus for the success we've had this season."
Miramontes is averaging a team-high 5.17 points per game. She leads the Rebels with 87 total blocks and is second with 343 kills. Aladjova leads the team with 348 kills and is second at 4.93 points per game. Walker has a team-high 417 digs. All three rank among UNLV's career and single-season record holders.
Like her sister, Robin, who played for Long Beach State, Miramontes could have played for almost any program in the country, but wanted the challenge of helping build a program from the ground up.
"I really wanted to go somewhere that wasn't a well-known program," she said. "I thought it would be more of a challenge and a lot more fun to be part of a team that put the spotlight on the program. That's something we're doing and I'm really excited about that."
Another key to the Rebels' success has been the play of junior setter Melody Nua, who came to UNLV as a walk-on and already ranks second with 3,301 career assists. She originally planned to go to a junior college, but her father insisted she attend a four-year school.
She didn't know much about the UNLV program when she arrived on campus, but she did recognize the name of one of her teammates. It turns out her coach at Lakewood High School knew of the Miramontes sisters and their success at Upland High School.
"He was always asking if we had seen the Miramontes sisters because they're so good," Nua said. "I came to UNLV and it was like Miramontes ... that sounds so familiar. Then I thought 'Oh my gosh, that's the same girl my coach had been talking about my entire high school career.' "
Not only are they helping put UNLV on the volleyball map, they are both motivated by what they perceive as a snub of the Rebels in the MWC preseason poll. With five letter winners and a libero returning, the players were confident their team would live up to their coach's prognostication.
"We kind of looked at that fourth-place ranking and we already knew we were going to finish much higher than that," Miramontes said. "We had great expectations for our team, having a lot of seniors and doing as well as we did last season."
What the Rebels really want is to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program's history. Winning the MWC's regular season title would probably lock up an at-large bid, but to do that, they will most likely need to win at Utah and BYU in the final week of the regular season.
"It will be a challenge," Miramontes said. "We've all been focused on the road and they will be good matches, but I am definitely confident we will come out on top. It will give us that much more of a boost going into the conference tournament."
If the Rebels can win the conference and earn their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the UNLV volleyball program will finally get the respect it craves.
"One of our goals was to make a name for ourselves," Nua said. "Being the first UNLV team to go to the NCAAs ... that would be amazing. We talk about it, but this is one of the first years we can actually do something about it."
Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.