Quartet has UNLV thinking postseason

UNLV volleyball coach Allison Keeley calls them the Fab Four — and for good reason.

Seniors Maria Aladjova, Brittani Lumsden, Lauren Miramontes and Jada Walker have spent four seasons turning around a program that had just four winning seasons in the 14 years prior to their arrival. And with a month remaining in their final season, they appear to be leading the Rebels toward their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

“This is super exciting,” said Lumsden, an outside hitter from Brea, Calif. “It seems like everything we’ve worked for is beginning to pay off. I had a feeling we’d be really strong this year. This is definitely the way to go out.”

Indeed. UNLV is 16-3 overall and 7-2 in Mountain West Conference play. Though a league championship is the only way to guarantee a postseason berth, the 36th-ranked Rebels appear to be on the NCAA bubble.

But Keeley said she’s not so sure about an at-large berth, noting that her squad was shunned last year after going 20-10 in the regular season. Even so, she likes her team’s position.

“We’re in great shape,” said Keeley, whose squad is second in the Mountain West, one game behind Colorado State. “We’re injury-free and the kids are still very open-minded. It’s going to be fun to watch them the rest of the year.”

Aladjova, an outside hitter from Sofia, Bulgaria, plans to make the most of those remaining games. She said her senior season is about bringing a long-lasting sense of pride to the program.

“The other day, I noticed that we don’t have a (championship) flag that we’ve earned,” said Aladjova, who leads the team with 307 kills. “I’m upset about that. All the other teams have something — an NCAA flag or a conference championship flag. I want to be the first (volleyball) team to do it. I want to come back in five, 10 years and see that we earned that first flag.”

Miramontes, a middle blocker who has 293 kills and a team-high 72 blocks, agreed that she and her fellow seniors feel a great sense of responsibility.

“We’ve worked hard for this,” said Miramontes, an Upland, Calif., native. “And when we all play together, there’s no stopping us.”

Keeley echoed that sentiment, noting that the quartet’s special relationship has been a key to her squad’s success.

“They’ve put in a lot of time and there’s a lot of diversity,” Keeley said. “They’re very different people, but they’ve learned to become a team and a unit.”

And they play their best volleyball at Cox Pavilion, which happens to be the site of next month’s conference tournament.

“We’re really good at home,” said Walker, UNLV’s all-time leader in digs. “We’re in our element. As the crowd grows and the fans come in, we really feed off that.”

Aladjova, who will play professionally in Europe next year, is the only member of the senior group who plans to continue with volleyball after graduation. The others agreed they’d be content just to go out with a strong finish.

“I just feel so blessed to play for this team,” said Walker, who joined the Rebels as a walk-on before earning a scholarship. “But it would be nice to know that we played the last four years for something.”

Keeley, who said she knows her squad will not be the same next year, said her seniors deserve a payoff for their years of dedication.

“We’ve had those seniors for four years,” she said. “It’s going to be sad to lose them, but we still want to make the most out of this year.”

The Rebels, who beat San Diego State 3-1 on Friday to claim their fifth consecutive victory, will host Colorado State at 7 p.m. Thursday in a showdown between the league’s top two teams.

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