The CSU volleyball team opens play in the NCAA Tournament at 5:30 p.m. Friday vs. Michigan in Palo Alto, Calif.
It is the 23rd consecutive appearance in the NCAA appearance for the Rams, who earned their coveted spot in the 64-team field by winning their 14th Mountain West title in the 20-year existence of the league.
Think about that for a second. The Rams have played in every NCAA Tournament since 1995. It is a streak so long, so enduring, that not a single member of the current team was born when it began.
Some historical context, circa 1995: The average price of an American home was $113,500. The average car cost $15,500. Braveheart was a box-office sensation. eBay made its debut, and DVDs were introduced. The DOW closed above 5,000 for the first time.
Closer to home, Rams football coaching legend Sonny Lubick had just claimed his second consecutive WAC title and Holiday Bowl trip. Campus landmarks like the McGraw Athletic Center, Computer Science Building and Academic Village did not exist. And the population of Fort Collins was 103,000 – more than 60,000 fewer than currently live here.
CSU’s streak is something that no other Division I program in Colorado or the Mountain West can relate to. CU, which played CSU earlier this year and also earned a spot in the NCAA field, had a program-best 11-year NCAA run – less than half as long as CSU’s – that ended in 2001. Only four other Division I volleyball programs have put together longer streaks.
Finding motivation in the streak
Heck, Tom Hilbert – the winningest Division I coach in Colorado in any sport – hadn’t even arrived at CSU when the streak began. He was earning still NCAA berths at Idaho in 1995 – and didn’t come to CSU until 1997, while the streak was at two. It’s something he doesn’t take for granted.
“I use the streak to motivate myself,” said Hilbert, who is 538-125 in 21 seasons at CSU. “Every off season I think we might not make it the next year, and I talk openly about weaknesses on our team. That’s the way I keep an edge. It helps me prepare for the grind of the season, and I think it helps our players prepare for the challenge.”
Hilbert wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this year’s team. The Rams returned some talented veterans but were plagued by injuries and went into the season dependent on unproven players. But, as has been the case since 1995, the Rams found a winning formula.
They take a 28-3 overall record and No. 23 national ranking into this year’s tourney opener against Michigan – the same Michigan team they swept in their eighth match of the season. Five Rams were named to the all-Mountain West team announced earlier this week, including player of the year Katie Oleksak and newcomer of the year Breana Runnels.
“This is as good of a team, in terms of balance, that we’ve ever had; we’re really good in all areas,” Hilbert said. “We’ll need to have everyone on our team elevate their game at the same time if we hope to beat Michigan again. It’s hard to do, but it can be done.”
Watch or listen
You can follow the CSU-Michigan match online or on the radio via KCSU-FM. If the Rams win they will take on the winner of the match between CSU Bakersfield and host Stanford. That match will be played at 7 p.m. Saturday, with a berth in the final 16 on the line.