After years of trying, New Mexico State finally found its way into the Western Athletic Conference. The school announced on Oct. 23 that NMSU will join the WAC beginning with the 2005-06 academic year.
The Aggies, currently members of the Sun Belt, will join rival Texas-El Paso as well as Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Nevada, Tulsa, Southern Methodist, Rice and San Jose State in the WAC. Utah State, also a member of the Sun Belt, will also join the WAC in 2005. "New Mexico State University has been very desirous of joining the WAC for some time because of the location of the teams," NMSU President William Flores said. "Geographically, they are close to NMSU and they are teams that our fans are familiar with. In addition, the WAC is home to UTEP, which is another exciting aspect because it allows us to play one of our historic rivals in conference competition."
Since the 2002-03 season began, four different individuals have held the head coaching position on the NMSU women's basketball bench. Current coach Darin Spence was hired in 2003 after a controversy last season spiraled out of control. Still, the Aggie women finished in first place in the Sun Belt Conference's West Division and, at 16-12, had its first winning season in years. Former head coach Nikita Lowry was placed on administrative leave in December of 2002 after players complained to the athletics administration of abusive behavior.
Assistant coach Marlene Stollings took over the helm but, citing frustration with the unresolved Lowry situation, walked off the job Feb. 5, along with the rest of the staff, the night before an important road trip. Men's assistant Elmer Chavez took over the women's team hours before it was scheduled to board a plane for New Orleans.
After the road trip, which saw the team lose twice and, temporarily, fall out of first place, an angry NMSU team met with the media and gave specifics as to why it had complained about the coach in the first place. The players accused Lowry of physical and mentally abusive behavior including pulling a player's hair, making a sick player run until she collapsed and had to be hospitalized and not allowing the players to talk in public on road trips.
"It was hell every day," forward Orphee Cherizard said. Lowry, who denied she abused the players, was officially removed from the post and reassigned within the athletics department as an associate athletics director. Even though she said she would show up for her new job, she never did and has a lawsuit pending against NMSU. The team lost in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
The NMSU athletics department began to expand and renovate facilities in 2003. The $6 million Fulton Athletics Center is currently under construction and is scheduled to be completed this spring. Located in behind the south end zone at Aggie Memorial Stadium, the center will house academic support services, the athletic training educational program, academic joint usage options and space to create additional revenue streams in the facility through special events, skyboxes and the University Club. A $12 million renovation of the Pan American Center was approved in 2003. The expansion and renovation is scheduled to address immediate needs including improved fan amenities, practice facilities, locker rooms and office space.
On July 22, NMSU announced that head men's basketball coach Lou Henson had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer affecting the lymph system of the body. Henson, 71, is in his second tenure as coach at NMSU. He retired in 1996 from a 21 year career as head basketball coach at the University of Illinois. He resumed his basketball coaching career in 1997 at New Mexico State. With more than 700 career victories, Henson is sure to be inducted into the college basketball hall of fame. "Mary (wife) and I are very optimistic," Henson said. "I will continue my coaching duties at New Mexico State. Through our faith along with prayers of family, friends, and others we expect to win over possibly the toughest foe we've had to face in my lifetime."
After starting the season with a 6-4 record against stiff competition, the NMSU volleyball team went on to win 24-straight matches, a school record. During that stretch, the Aggies lost just 11 games out of 83 (.867) and won 17 matches by a 3-0 score. The Aggies would also earn six player of the week honors, including four in a five-week period by senior libero Jackie Godber. In the postseason, NMSU and head coach Mike Jordan secured another first in program history when it won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to earn an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies lost in the first round of the tourney but still became the first team in school history to win 30 games and was the first team to go undefeated in conference play (15-0). The 15 wins also set a Sun Belt Conference record for conference wins (15); the Ags also set league records in average attendance (1,438) and total attendance (15,816) in a season. The Aggies left the Sun Belt Tournament with the an armful of honors, including three first team all conference honors (Stevi Adams, Trinia Cuseo, Morgan Reader), one second team all conference and Defensive Player of the Year honors (Godber), Sun Belt Coach of the Year honors (Mike Jordan) and four academic honors (Abby Stines, Andrea Beltran, Sarah Silagy, Amanda Olivas).
For the second-straight season, the New Mexico State baseball team played in the NCAA postseason. The Aggies and head coach Rocky Ward received an at-large bid to NCAA Regional action. The Aggies finished with a 43-18 record, the best in school history. NMSU defeated UNLV in the postseason but then lost to Arizona State and fell in a rematch to the Rebels to season their season come to a close. "It was the best season in Aggie history, so we're very proud of these kids. It's a big building block for the future," Ward said. First baseman Billy Becher was named an All-American and was drafted in the 18th round by the Oakland Athletics but has decided to return to NMSU for his senior season. He hit .420 with 32 home runs and 118 runs batted in. He led the nation in home runs and RBI and ranked 13th in the country in batting average.
With a 7-5 record notched into its belt after the 2002 season — the best year of Aggie football since the 1960s — the NMSU nation held high hopes for the Aggies in 2003. National publications predicted the Aggies would finish somewhere in the top three in the Sun Belt Conference standings and opined that the team from the Mesilla Valley had a very good shot at qualifying for its first bowl game since 1960.
But from the very first game, the wheels came off the Aggie car. NMSU traveled to Austin and was thrashed by the heavily-favored Texas Longhorns 66-7 on national television. After an expected win against Division II Western New Mexico, the Aggies proceeded to lose five-straight games. What was extremely frustrating for many NMSU fans, though, was the fact that the Aggies actually played as well if not better than many of their foes yet still found themselves on the short end of the scoreboard.
The season was summed up the night of Oct. 4 when NMSU opened league play at home against winless Idaho. The Aggies held a 28-0 lead in the third quarter only to see the Vandals rally and leave Las Cruces with a 35-31 victory. After Idaho closed to within 32-28 late in the fourth quarter, the Aggies appeared to put the game away when, as part of a long, time-consuming drive, running back Tony Joseph rushed for a first down deep in Idaho territory with 55 seconds left. But while most of the Aggies were starting to think about taking a knee to run out the clock, the ball popped out of Joseph's arms before the play could be whistled dead and Idaho recovered. The Vandals drove down the field and scored the winning touchdown with 14 seconds left. The sequel came a week later when NMSU dominated Middle Tennessee on the statistics sheet yet still lost 35-18. The Aggies won games against Utah State and Louisiana-Monroe and finished the season a disappointing 3-9. "I think we have a really good football team that hasn't closed things out," NMSU coach Tony Samuel said of the 2003 squad. The Aggies closed the season, as it began, with a loss on national television. It's Tuesday night showdown with three-time Sun Belt champ North Texas was shown nationwide on ESPN2, the first time an Aggie home football game was seen on national television.
The junior from Albuquerque was the first women's cross country runner in school history to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships, finishing 129th. She qualified for the national championships by running a lifetime best of 21:25 over the six-kilometer course at the Mountain Regional Championships in Albuquerque, finishing 11th. She was named to the Verizon Academic All-District VI Women's Track and Field/Cross Country Team. She won three races during the regular season, and finished second individually at the Sun Belt Conference Championships. She helped the Aggies to a third place finish at the Sun Belt Conference Championships.
NMSU Equestrian team: The athletics department announced that it will add women's equestrian as a varsity sport beginning in 2004-05. The addition of the sport will give New Mexico State 16 intercollegiate sports programs, meeting the new NCAA Division I-A membership criteria. Of those 16 sports, 10 of those are women's teams.
The NMSU Equestrian team has been a club team at the University since 1993 and has won a pair of national championships. The administration of the team will transfer from the College of Agriculture to the NMSU Athletics Department. "This is a natural for New Mexico State," NMSU Athletics Director Brian Faison said. "We are a land-grant institution and I can't think of another sport that better fits with that mission than equestrian." While the team is best known for its Western riding, team members also compete in hunt seat or English style events. NMSU competes in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, which has more than 300 participating colleges and universities. The NCAA does not currently sponsor an equestrian championship, but in 1999 the NCAA declared equestrian as a emerging sport for women.