A fall unlike any other for legendary Rams coach

Tom Hilbert

After 32 consecutive seasons of coaching volleyball, CSU’s Tom Hilbert is making the best of the hand that’s been dealt to him and his team in 2020. Shown here after his 500th win at CSU in 2016, Hilbert has more wins than any Division I coach in Colorado in any sport.

As usual, the past several months have been quite busy for Tom Hilbert.

In May, he married Claire Bouchard, whom he met while hosting a CSU engagement event in his residential community. And between the two of them, they have either purchased or sold – and moved in or out of – four residences in Fort Collins as they consolidated into one home near Old Town.

“It’s really been a crazy few months,” he said. “I have been much busier than I ever imagined.”

But here’s the really crazy part: The summer and fall are always busy for Hilbert. He’s usually up to his eyeballs in summer camps, preseason practices, welcoming freshmen and other first-year players, finalizing travel details, making himself available for media requests and untold numbers of other tasks – all part of what goes into being the head volleyball coach at Colorado State University.

Unforeseen challenges

Breana Runnels
Outside hitter Breana Runnels enters her senior season as CSU’s all-time leader in kills, but the pandemic has put her future on the team in doubt.

In case you hadn’t noticed, however, 2020 has been different. There were no camps, there are no road matches to prepare for, and there’s little reason for the media to contact the popular coach who has been the Rams’ coach since 1997.

That’s because, for the first time in more than 32 years, Hilbert’s not coaching. Oh, he’s got a team, and they are practicing, but for the first time since he began his career at the University of Idaho in 1989, there are no matches this fall. The Mountain West, of which CSU is a member, opted to push the volleyball season, typically in the fall, to the spring due to the pandemic.

“Everything is so different from a normal season,” he said. “I don’t feel badly for myself, but I do feel badly for our players – especially our freshmen and seniors. They are the ones who are kind of caught in limbo.”

By any measure, this would have been a very interesting season for Hilbert – who has more wins (590) than any Division I coach in any sport in Colorado. The Rams lost five of six starters off one of his best teams (the Rams were 29-2 in 2019 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the 25th consecutive season), and they were facing an ambitious schedule that included, among others, 2019 Final Four participant Baylor and a pair of matches with rival Colorado.

“This is her life plan”

No one epitomizes the strange nature of this situation than Breana Runnells, CSU’s outstanding senior outside hitter. Runnels, a three-time all-conference player, broke CSU’s all-time record for kills in the NCAA Tournament match against South Carolina, and she was primed to put the record all but out of reach in her final season. But Runnels, who graduates in December with a degree in construction management, has opted out of team-related activities this fall, and her return for the spring is uncertain.

“Breana is going to take advantage of internship opportunities, and I don’t blame her one bit,” Hilbert said. “How are you not going to let her take a semester off? She needs these internships to make her life work, to get her career started. It’s bigger than sports – it’s a no-brainer. This is her life plan.”

Two other seniors expected to contribute this season – opposite hitter Ellie Gubser and defensive specialist Jenna Heinemeier – have also opted out of team activities and are unlikely to return for a spring season.

Freshmen aplenty

And then there are the freshmen – seven of them in all. Some redshirted last season, expecting to compete for playing time this season. Some are brand new to the team. And Hilbert is expected to recruit as usual to find even more freshmen for the 2021 season.

Tom Hilbert wedding
Hilbert married Claire Bouchard in May in a ceremony at the Poudre River Whitewater Park.

“Essentially, everyone on the team is redshirting – even the ones who have already redshirted,” he said. “No one is losing a season of eligibility, and no one is losing scholarship support. It’s going to be a very interesting situation over the next couple of years to see how this all shakes out.”

While it would be easy for Hilbert and his Rams to feel sorry for themselves – especially when other conferences have opted to play this fall despite COVID-19 concerns – they are making the best of the situation. They practice regularly in small groups and are using intrasquad scrimmages to hone their skills and learn Hilbert’s system.

“Things are going better than I expected,” Hilbert said. “I was very concerned about everybody’s focus without games being played but that’s actually been pretty good. We’re getting the opportunity to bond as a team, although it’s mostly in smaller groups.

“We’re taking it a day at a time, and we’re trying to keep it fresh. The coaches want to keep the players focused and having fun while helping them realize that CSU volleyball is not what they are experiencing during the pandemic.”

New team, new opportunities

The good news is that the extra practice time is giving the Rams a chance to learn about themselves. With five – and possibly all six – starting spots up for grabs, this is an opportunity for veteran players to shine while newcomers can immediately grab the spotlight.

Even if Runnels doesn’t play the Rams return several talented players, including middle blocker Sasha Colombo, setter Ciera Zimmerman and defensive specialist Alexa Roumeliotis. And Hilbert gets a little giddy when he talks about all of those talented freshmen on the team.

“We have a couple of freshmen who are really accomplished and very athletic players,” he said. “Overall, we have great young talent. We could very likely start three newcomers – possibly four.”

Fortunately for the Rams, the NCAA has opted to hold its volleyball championship at the conclusion of the spring season, so they will have an opportunity to extend their remarkable streak of tournament appearances. Hilbert isn’t sure what the spring season holds but he’s just hoping he gets to see this new team play soon. The joy of coaching remains 32 years after he officially took the floor for the first time.

“I was thinking the other day how grateful I will be to walk out there on the court at Moby to coach again,” he said. “That’s how grateful all of us should be. We’re very fortunate to be able to be part of a sport we love and play in front of amazing fans. When we do return it will be just as special for our fans as it will be for us.”