SANTA BARBARA, California (KVIA) -- The Thunderdome Classic came to a close on Sunday, and the Aggies walked out victorious. After a rough start to the season against UCSB, NM State has won two in a row, sweeping both North Florida and Denver. Head Coach Mike Jordan's squad moves to 2-1, while the Pioneers fall to 0-3.
Set-by-set: NM State wins 3-0 (25-20, 25-23, 25-19)
Saturday's victory was highlighted mostly by two standout performances from Ryleigh Whitekettle and Peyton Castillo. Sunday's sweep was more balanced across the entire box score. Whitekettle did lead the team in kills again, with 11, but she was followed closely behind by Starr Williams with 10. The two have been viewed by the coaching staff in tandem for many reasons, as they are both transfers, redshirt sophomores, and are the two tallest athletes on the roster. Their balanced performance against Denver included 15 kills and five blocks in the first two sets, and the coaching staff was very satisfied.
Jordan was asked about the offense in relation to those two, saying "We got better as the weekend went on, which is what you want to see. We did a lot of good things and had a lot of good moments. Our ceiling is still really high and we've got a lot of things that need to be better. We beat two good teams and got closer as a group. Peyton (Castillo) getting hurt really dampens the mood but hopefully she'll be ok."
Castillo made her second consecutive start in the match, but left early in the second set with an injury after accumulating five assists and two digs. She did not return to the floor. She had a career performance less than 24 hours prior, putting up 21 assists and six digs against North Florida.
The offense carried on, led by Bianca Perez. The sophomore setter tallied 16 assists, providing crucial help after Castillo went down. Rilen Garcia got 11 of her own, and was the only other Aggie to finish with double-digit assists.
The first set was all about the aces. Four service aces from four separate players sparked the momentum throughout the majority of the first set for the Aggies. Whitekettle and Williams each had four kills, and it was a relatively comfortable 25-20 win.
The second set proved to once again be the set to determine the fate of the match. An Aggie error grew the Pioneer lead to 10-7, before NM State won six of the next seven points to pull ahead by two and force a Denver timeout. After being tied at 13-13, NM State led the rest of the set, always between one and four points. The Pioneer offense couldn't get it past Alexandria Connatser, who finished with eight blocks. She had three in the 25-23 second set win.
The third set was the best of the season so far for NM State, winning 25-19. This was the first time in 2023 that an Aggie opponent has been held under 20 in a frame. A 10-10 tie appeared to show some life from Denver. A joint-effort 8-2 run quickly shut that down. Two kills apiece from Whitekettle, Williams, and Kacia Brown in the 10-point stretch proved to be too much, forcing another Denver timeout at 18-12. Each team won seven points from that point on, ending the match on a block assist from Brown and Whitekettle.
- Whitekettle finished The Thunderdome Classic with 35 kills on 66 swings and only 4 errors, landing her a stunning .470 hitting percentage.
- Darian Markham has been exceptional in the libero role, leaving Santa Barbara with 57 digs. Markham's 21 digs on Sunday are more than any other Aggie has all season (Mari Sharp, 17)
- Alexandria Connatser leads the team with 13.0 blocks on the season, and her eight against Denver are the team's most in a single match
- Bianca Perez finds herself atop the leaderboard for both assists and service aces, with 44 and seven respectively.
The Aggies will host the Borderland Invitational along with UTEP this upcoming weekend. On Friday, Sept. 1 at 7:00 PM MT, the Aggies will play in their home-opener against San Francisco. After an off-day on Saturday, they will retake the floor against Arizona State on Sunday at 1:00 PM MT.