Tom Hilbert has been coaching volleyball at CSU for 20 years, and every one of those teams has qualified for the NCAA Tournament. His program is the epitome of consistent, sustained excellence.
But this year’s team, Hilbert said, might have been the most surprising. He had no idea what to expect this season – and yet, the Rams once again are in familiar position going into a 5:30 p.m. Thursday NCAA Tournament match against Loyola Marymount.
Hilbert opened the season by installing a two-setter offense for the first time in his CSU coaching career, and he had numerous unproven players who were being counted on to play key roles.
“The fact is, many things fell into place this year that I really had no idea how they would shake out,” Hilbert said. “People on this team have improved tremendously – not only in personal skill but in their ability to prepare for matches. We are much better now than we were at the beginning of the season.”
It’s hard to remember now but the Rams were just 6-3 to start the season and lost back-to-back matches to Texas and Texas A&M. Since that time they have reeled off 20 consecutive wins, won their seventh consecutive Mountain West championship and enter the postseason ranked 12th nationally.
Culbert was named player of the year in the Mountain West, rarely leaving the court while splitting time between hitting and setting. She set school and conference records with eight triple-doubles and became the first collegiate player in more than five years to post a quadruple-double in a win over San Jose State – a performance that earned her national player of the week honors.
“We’ve had really great volleyball players and really great athletes in this program, and Dri is probably in the top three of the great volleyball players we’ve had,” Hilbert said “We’ve never had a setter/hitter before, and she handled both roles very well. Everyone on the team knows that the person who wants to be good and wants to win the most is Dri.”
Reid, a transfer outside hitter from Long Beach State who was the MW’s newcomer of the year, joined Culbert and middle blockers Acacia Andrews and Alexandra Poletto on the all-conference team. Colaizzi, a four-year starter at libero, was named honorable mention. And several younger players stepped into significant roles along the way for a team that has not lost a match in nearly three months.
Of course, none of that will matter Thursday when the Rams take on Loyola Marymount at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion. The Lions (22-8), Hilbert said, are very similar to the Rams and will provide a formidable challenge.
Should the Rams win they would face the winner of the Stanford-New Mexico State match (8 p.m. Thursday) on Friday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year.
“Loyola Marymount is a lot like us – four strong seniors, started off the season struggling and now they are pretty good,” he said. “I think this will be a real challenge for us, but I like our team and the way we are playing. We’ve had our ups and downs but these kids have grown up a ton during the course of the year.”