ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.--Being the No. 1 seed in a conference tournament is the toughest position to be in, Colorado State Head Coach Tom Hilbert said earlier this week. The Rams had a target on their back, with each team aiming to knock them off.
Three teams tried this weekend at the 2011 Mountain West Volleyball Championship, but none came close, as CSU became the second team in the conference's history to sweep its way through the entire tournament, defeating the UNLV Rebels Sunday evening (25-14, 25-14, 25-22) at New Mexico's Johnson Center, and bringing home its fifth tournament championship.
With the win, the Rams (22-5) have earned the league's automatic berth, qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the 17th consecutive season.
"We overcame a Vegas team that was on a Cinderella run," Hilbert said. "They were having fun and enjoying the game. Those teams can be dangerous. Our team has to understand that when you're Colorado State, you sometimes give up the happy-go-lucky feeling of being in the Mountain West tournament. We're supposed to win this, and that can put pressure on a team. But our players handled it very well, and I'm very proud of all of them."
2011 Player of the Year Katelyn Steffan was named the tournament MVP, becoming the fifth CSU player to earn the MW tournament MVP award. Dana Cranston and Brieon Paige, both all-MW selections, were named to the all-tournament team, while Izzy Gaulia was named the outstanding libero of the tournament.
Steffan and junior Megan Plourde led CSU offensively, with 11 and 12 kills, respectively.
"Kate was great for us all weekend," Hilbert said. "It's been really fun to see the type of player and leader she has become. Meg was fantastic. She was really good and she blocked well. I thought Brieon added some athleticism that we needed. It was a really good team effort.
The Rams held the Rebels to .035 hitting and outblocked UNLV 12-5. Paige and Plourde each had five blocks, while redshirt freshman Kelsey Snider added four.
The Rams fell behind early, 3-2, but with Gaulia serving, they took seven straight points to push the score to 9-3. The Rebels (14-17) fought back, closing the gap to 14-12, but that's when the Rams took over by winning five points in a row, the last on a great defensive effort to save several UNLV attacks. CSU didn't let down from there, though, extending the 5-0 run to 11-2 to close the set. The Rams finished the opening stanza with six total blocks and hit .361.
CSU jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in Set 2 and never trailed, slowly extending its lead. Plourde had four kills and a pair of blocks in the set, as the Rams won again, 25-14.
With the score tied at 14-14 in Set 3, UNLV went on a 5-0 run to take its largest lead of the match. CSU didn't cave, though, responding with a 6-1 run to force the set's 11th tie, at 20-20.
"We made a lot of mistakes in the middle of that set," Hilbert said, "but we came back with that 6-1 run to take the lead. We transitioned some balls and got a couple of important kills."
The Rams, who recorded 19 kills in the third set, then took five of the final seven points, capped with a Plourde kill, to clinch the title.
"There were a lot of smiles in the locker room after the match tonight," Hilbert said. "I'm really pleased and happy for this team."
Despite the top seed making it to the finals eight times in the tournament's 10-year history, the Rams, also winners of the 2011 regular-season title, became only the second No. 1 seed to win the championship tournament as well. CSU also did it in 2003.
The championship is the volleyball program's 16th overall conference title, more than any other sport at CSU (it was previously tied with football with 15).
"There are two sides to this coin," Hilbert said. "We need to be grateful that we get the opportunity to do this. You can't just think it's a right that every year we get to play in the NCAA tournament. You have to earn it. But on the other side of the coin, our players expect to go each year, which is a good thing if you approach it the right way. Our players expect to go and expect to win because of the excellence that has been built within this program."
CSU will play a non-conference match at New Mexico State on Saturday (12 p.m. MT) before learning its postseason matchup.