Angry Rams ready for NCAA volleyball run

CSU volleyball
Outside hitter Breana Runnels, left, middle blocker Kirstie Hillyer, center, and setter Katie Oleksak have been key performers for the 10th-ranked CSU volleyball team this season.

The Colorado State University women’s volleyball team went into this season with a lot of familiar goals:

  • Win their 16th regular-season Mountain West title in the 21-year history of the league.
  • Extend their amazing streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to 25.
  • Dominate at home.

Check, check, and check.

The Rams did all of that and more en route to the greatest regular season in the history of Colorado’s most consistently successful collegiate sports program. They finished 29-1, winning their final 28 matches – another program record. They went 18-0 in Mountain West play, sweeping every league match for the third time, and they are ranked No. 10 in the nation – the highest CSU has been ranked since hitting No. 9 in 2015.

Katie Oleksak
Senior Katie Oleksak set the CSU career assists record this year and was voted Mountain West player of the year for the third time.

 

But there was one more very important item on this senior-laden team’s wish list for 2019: host first-round matches in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams hadn’t hosted a four-team regional since 2014, and they wanted to reward their army of loyal fans with big-time matches in Moby Arena.

Angry motivation

But when the NCAA revealed its 64-team NCAA Tournament bracket on Dec. 1 on ESPNU, the Rams learned that their dream of hosting had been crushed. Instead, they open tournament play at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6,  in Seattle against South Carolina.

So, despite their top 10 ranking, their 28 consecutive wins and all of the other remarkable achievements, the Rams were sent on the road, some 1,200 miles away. The NCAA awards the 16 home sites based on a complicated, computer-generated formula called ratings percentage index (RPI), and CSU’s RPI was in the mid-20s because of the overall weakness of the Mountain West.

“We went in knowing our chances were not good, but when we didn’t get to host it was still kind of a low blow,” said senior middle blocker Kirstie Hillyer. “We’ve had an incredible season, and we had been working toward hosting from Day 1, so it really hurt to get sent on the road.”

So the Rams have a new mission: Turn their disappointment into motivation.

“We did everything we could do, and that’s what makes it so frustrating,” said senior setter Katie Oleksak. “But now we have to move past that and show people what CSU volleyball is all about. We’re going out to Seattle to play to the best of our abilities. We’re all mad, but that’s when we’re at our best.”

Hilbert confident in experienced team

Rams coach Tom Hilbert, the winningest coach of any Division I sport in the state’s history, has been around long enough to know the Rams almost certainly wouldn’t be hosting matches, so he was not surprised. His focus immediately went to CSU’s tournament draw: A trip to Seattle to face South Carolina (19-11) from the Southeastern Conference in Friday’s first round. If the Rams win that match, they would likely face host Pac-12 Conference power Washington (24-6) in the second round.

Breana Runnels
Junior Breana Runnels is one of the top outside hitters in the country.

“What we’ve got is a pretty good South Carolina team that is beatable in the first round,” Hilbert said. “Then, assuming Washington beats Winthrop (in the other first-round match Friday) wins, we would have to get past a very good Pac-12 team on their home court. It won’t be easy, but we’ve been a very good team on the road. We’ve had some tough matches away from Moby but we figure out a way to win.”

Rams have been there, done that

In many ways, this is a moment four years in the making. Oleksak, Hillyer, middle blocker Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, outside hitter Olivia Nicholson and outside hitter Jessica Jackson are all talented seniors with years of experience. Toss in junior outside hitter Breana Runnels, a three-year starter, and the core members of the team have a resume that includes three conference titles and 102 victories over the past four seasons.

Hillyer, Haugaard-Jensen, Oleksak and Runnels were all recently named to the all-league team, while Oleksak was voted conference player of the year for the third time – the first player in league history to do so. Hilbert was named coach of the year for the 12th time.

One big goal remaining

The one thing this team has not accomplished, however, is NCAA Tournament success. The 2017 team, which finished 29-4, beat Michigan in the first round but was bounced by host Stanford in the second. The 2015 and 2018 teams lost first-round NCAA matches.

It’s been 10 years since the Rams reached the Sweet 16 – not coincidentally, the last time the Rams hosted – and this team is determined to get back.

“When our team gets fired up there is no stopping us, and we’re fired up,” Hillyer said. “My dad calls it (ticked) off determination. Every tough match we’ve had this year we’ve had that attitude, and that’s what we’re taking to the NCAAs.”