FORT COLLINS, Colo. - Colorado State's volleyball team has a lengthy history of success in its storied program. On Friday night, the Rams added to that success with its fourth consecutive Mountain West regular-season title.
The championship is the Rams' fourth consecutive and 10th overall in the league's 14-year history. With the win, CSU earned the league's automatic bid, and will advance to the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive season.
On a night that honored CSU's four seniors in front of a lively crowd at Moby Arena, the Rams made sure to send their leaders out on a high note.
CSU (21-7, 13-3 MW) avenged its loss from earlier in the season, and defeated New Mexico (20-13, 7-9 MW) in a four-set match (19-25, 25-8, 25-19, 25-21) to close out the regular season.
"I was pleased with our team tonight," Head Coach Tom Hilbert said. "We had a lot of little great things happen tonight. It was a great match; it was a great match for the seniors."
In the first set, the visiting Lobos looked to play spoiler to what the Rams had in mind for the night, and jumped out in control of the match from the opening serve. While CSU battled tough with New Mexico, the Lobos maintained their grasp on a slim lead. After the Rams took the lead at 16-15, New Mexico quickly responded by taking five of the next six points to gain a three-point advantage late in the set. The Lobos extended that lead, and won the set, 25-19.
Just like it has so often this year, CSU showed its resilience in Set 2.
"Since San Diego State (Oct 27), we've known that we have to win," senior outside hitter Dana Cranston said. "Tonight was one of those games, but it was easier in that sense because we had already been in those situations that were tough, on the road even; never mind here. This night seriously could not have gotten any better."
Led by 12 consecutive serves from sophomore Deedra Foss, the Rams grabbed a commanding 17-2 lead in the set. CSU combined terrific defense and efficient offense to take the second set easily, 25-8. Cranston had eight kills on .727 hitting in the set, and the Rams finished the set with 16 kills on .577 hitting. On defense, Colorado State contained the Lobos' attack to only four kills and forced them into seven attack errors, three of which came from blocks.
The third set began with both teams looking to seize control of the match. Down 10-8, the Rams used a 6-1 run to do just that. CSU never relinquished its lead in the set en route to a 25-19 victory that featured tough defense played from both sides. The two teams combined for 14 attack errors as both teams were held to less than .160 hitting in the set.
In Set 4, the Rams proved once again that they would not cave amidst adversity. The Lobos held a 12-8 lead and forced a CSU timeout. After New Mexico scored on the next point to extend its lead to five points, the Rams came roaring back. CSU responded with an 11-3 run to take a 19-16 lead late in the set. The run featured back-to-back service aces from freshman Kaitlind Bestgen that energized the crowd and the team.
With the lead, the Rams refused to look back, taking the final set, 25-21. The match came to a fitting end with seniors Brieon Paige and Cranston combining for a block on the final point to clinch the Mountain West title.
Freshman outside hitter Adrianna Culbert set a career high with 10.5 points, while also posting eight kills on .467 hitting and registering 13 digs.
This night was all about the seniors, though. Cranston paced the Rams' offense with 17 kills while Paige added eight kills of her own. Megan Plourde was effective on both ends with 11 kills and a team-high seven blocks, while Izzy Gaulia finished the match with 14 digs. With 1,153 career digs, Gaulia now stands in fourth place in CSU history.
"To give this group of kids four rings, four championships in a row, that is pretty darn special," Hilbert said of his senior class. "There are athletes in a lot of sports at all levels who don't have the level of excellence that these four kids do. I am privileged to have had them come here and play for me. Tonight, it was an honor to be able to see them win this championship in front of a great crowd."
The foursome join just three other CSU players to win four conference championships throughout their careers.
The Rams will be anxiously watching on Sunday to find out who they will be taking on in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are released. Coverage for the selection show will begin at 2 p.m. MT on ESPNU. CSU is hosting a watch party at CB & Potts from 1-3:30 p.m., and will include comments from Hilbert both before and after the announcement.
"We're way better than we were eight weeks ago when we lost to New Mexico at their place," Hilbert said. "We're a way better volleyball team right now, and I'm excited for the NCAA tournament."