Phew! Rams earn 22nd consecutive NCAA invitation

Colorado State University Volleyball vs Nevada. CSU won 3-0 and gave coach Tom Hilbert his 500th win at CSU. October 13, 2016
Defensive specialist Cassidy Denny is the lone senior on the CSU volleyball team. She will be making her fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

CSU volleyball coach Tom Hilbert doesn’t get nervous often.

Heck, when you’ve earned more wins than any college coach in any sport in state history, a sense of calm comes with the territory. And when your team has reached the NCAA Tournament every year since you arrived in 1997, you don’t generally waste a lot of time worrying about whether you’ll be extending that streak.

But on Nov. 27 – the day the NCAA announced the 64-team bracket for this year’s championship tournament – Hilbert felt more than a few butterflies. It was the first time in a while he went into the selection announcement unsure of what would happen.

The streak lives

“It had been since 2005 since I was that nervous because we were a bubble team that year, too,” he said. “I really felt like we deserved to be in this year but you never really know what to expect.”

As it turns out, the Rams (21-8) and their coach had nothing to worry about. Their name was called, and they have already begun preparations for their 22nd-consecutive tournament appearance – one of the longest postseason streaks in the country.

CSU will face Kentucky (22-7) in the opening round at 6 p.m. MST Friday in a four-team regional in Seattle. If the beat the Wildcats they will face the winner of the Washington-Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Saturday in the second round.

Young but talented

The Rams earned their berth in a season that was filled with potential but plenty of uncertainty. CSU has just one senior (Cassidy Denny) and came into the season knowing their fortunes would be determined by a talented but inexperienced group of freshmen and sophomores.

“We’ve gone through some phases when we were really, really good, but others when injuries and some other things disrupted our flow,” said Hilbert, who had won seven consecutive Mountain West titles before finishing second this season. “We’ve had a lot of new lineups, but they players have always found a way. I’ve really enjoyed coaching them.”

Challenging assignment

Hilbert said he expects a tough match with Kentucky, which tied for third in the Southeastern Conference. The Rams, though, faced a challenging schedule that included six teams in the 64-team NCAA field, and that should help them.

“This is huge for our young players – they’ll get to experience what it’s like to play when the stakes are really high,” he said. “Kids need to understand the dynamics of a season – how long it lasts and when they have to peak. I’m excited for this season and the next few seasons with this team.”