Serving up success: CSU’s volleyball team excels on the court and in the classroom

CSU Volleyball team

CSU’s volleyball team is setting academic records, with a team GPA of 3.739 last spring, and every player had at least a 3.0. The team GPA was the second highest ever recorded by any CSU sports program. Photos by CSU Athletics

Tom Hilbert has had so many good teams and so many good players over the course of his 23 years as CSU’s volleyball coach that he’s hesitant to call any team or any player his best.

After all, when you have gone to the NCAA Tournament every single season, won 579 matches and produced a long line of All-Americans and all-conference players, it’s hard to choose one that’s better than the rest.

However, when it comes to his 2019 team, which comes into home matches Thursday against San Jose State (7 p.m.) and Saturday against Nevada (1 p.m.) ranked 14th in the nation and riding a 17-match winning streak, he doesn’t hesitate to use superlatives.

“Unquestionably, this is the smartest team I’ve ever coached,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like to compare teams, but no other team I’ve had comes close to this one when it comes to academics. It’s been super interesting and enlightening for me as a coach to work with such intelligent players.”

Need proof? Seven players – Sasha Colombo, Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, Katie Oleksak, Breana Runnels, Jenna Heinemeyer, Ciera Zimmerman and Jacqi Van Liefde – recorded 4.0 grade point averages for the spring semester.

Thank about that for a second: There are 16 players on the roster, and 37.5% of them got perfect GPAs.

And it’s not just those six excelling in the classroom. The Rams set a program record with a team GPA of 3.739 last spring, and every player had at least a 3.0. The team GPA was the second highest ever recorded by any CSU sports program.

“This is a pretty remarkable group,” Hilbert said. “They do it all – they’re good at everything. They’re highly successful in the classroom, and they get it done on the court.”

“This is a pretty remarkable group. They do it all – they’re good at everything. They’re highly successful in the classroom, and they get it done on the court.”

— Head coach Tom Hilbert

And lest you think these Rams are coasting through some cushy curriculum designed to ease the stressful load facing all Division I student-athletes, consider some of these intellectual tidbits:

• Academic majors include zoology, biology, business and marketing, math and psychology.

• Oleksak, the team’s star setter, is already a Certified Nursing Assistant and plans to go to nursing school.

• Colombo and Van Liefde plan to go to medical school.

• Ellie Gubser is focused on a career as a dentist.

• Jenna Heinemeyer majors in business and has already secured an internship with Goldman Sachs.

• Alexa Roumeliotis, a math whiz who has recorded 4.0 GPAs at both CSU and her previous school, Creighton University, can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than 3 minutes.

• Hougaard-Jensen, a senior from Denmark, carries a 3.95 overall GPA because of one B she got in ancient world history during her first semester when she was still learning the ins and outs of American education. She’s still ticked about it three years later.

Acing academics

 Six players recorded 4.0 grade point averages for the spring semester.

Marie Tyrrell, assistant director of student-athlete support services, has provided academic support for the volleyball program for the past few years. She said the players take advantage of tutors and other services provided by the university but there’s more to their success. She cited the work of Emily Kohan, Hilbert’s associate head coach, who makes sure the players are staying on top of their classwork.

“Emily has really stepped up the expectations of the program; there is an expectation that everyone on the team gets on the all-Mountain West academic team,” Tyrrell said. “Four of the past five semesters they have recorded the best team GPA in program history. Honestly, it’s pretty remarkable. These women are ranked 14th in the country and still carry a team GPA of almost 3.8. That’s just amazing.”

Tyrrell is quick to point out that these volleyball players are more than simply smart; they work at academics, and they take pride in their grades.

Runnels, a junior outside hitter who along with middle blocker Kirstie Hillyer will challenge Oleksak for conference player of the year honors, got off to a rough start her first year majoring in engineering. But once she discovered a new path in construction management she has blossomed.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise when I got the 4.0 because I have high expectations for myself,” said Runnels, who is second in the Mountain West with 3.77 kills per game. “What I’m most proud of is that our team had the highest GPA in program history. We are such a focused and motivated group, it’s kind of nice to remind ourselves that we are strong performers, on the court and in the classroom.”

Hilbert pointed out that it’s not always ideal to have so many smart players. These Rams, he noted, tend to overanalyze certain situations rather than just going out and letting their considerable athletic ability take over.

He recalled that earlier this season Oleksak and Hougaard-Jensen were having trouble connecting on back sets.

“I thought they were going to try to set up a physics equation to try to figure it out,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Hougaard-Jensen, who leads the conference in blocks, immediately recalled the situation Hilbert had cited.

“My steps were off – should I take two steps or one into the set?” she said. “Tom told us to stop overanalyzing and just play. Eventually, we got it figured out.”

Digging in on goals

Alexa Roumeliotis

Defensive specialist Alexa Roumeliotis can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than 3 minutes.

The truly exciting thing about this team is that all of its goals are very much within reach. They have the inside track to their third consecutive conference title and the school’s 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. They would love to host first-round NCAA matches, and right now they are in position to do just that.

As for the academic side of things, Hilbert can’t help but smile at the group of true student-athletes he has assembled. They are serious about volleyball but equally focused on academics – sometimes too focused.

“If one of our players gets a C in a class it causes major stress for the entire team,” he said. “I got a lot of Cs in college; it’s not the end of the world. But with my players, it can kick off a depression that can be very challenging. I try to keep things loose so they don’t put so much pressure on themselves, on the court or in the classroom.”

He recalled a recent dinner honoring donors who support volleyball scholarships that was attended by several of his players. Olivia Nicholson and Gubser were talking about solving a particular equation and how they likely would be up until the wee hours working on it.

“I had no idea what they were talking about,” he said, chuckling. “I just said, ‘pass me another roll and butter, please!’ They do things that I can’t even fathom. It’s a pretty special group.”

CSU volleyball clinic

The CSU volleyball program is sponsoring a free clinic for all players in kindergarten through fifth grade Saturday following the 14th-ranked Rams’ game against Nevada.

The hour-long clinic is open to the first 100 kids who register at The event begins following the conclusion of the 1 p.m. match at Moby Arena.

Participants should wear athletic shoes and comfortable athletic clothing.