Aug. 11, 2014
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The 18th-ranked Colorado State volleyball team held its first practice on Monday, prepping for its season opener on Aug. 30. After a morning session which included flexibility, jump, strength and fitness testing, CSU got on the court for an afternoon practice, featuring all 14 players and an entire coaching staff for the first time.
“We’re still trying to get people out in new positions, and we’ll be doing that for about a week," said Head Coach Tom Hilbert, who signed a five-year contract extension on Monday. "I will say that I like the way these players, especially the new players, look. Everybody looked physically in great condition, and I think that we have some talented kids here.”
Following, Hilbert treated his NETwork members and the media to dinner, and answered questions about the upcoming season, expectations, the schedule, starting rotations and more.
(on the team’s first day of practice)
Today was our first full day of practice. We’re a little rusty; we’re still trying to get people out in new positions, and we’ll be doing that for about a week. We’re trying to get timing down with our setters, communicate things, define what we call different things. It’s all a little bit confusing for new people coming into a program, but I will say that I like the way that these players, especially the new players, look. We did our conditioning test this morning and our jump testing, and everybody looked physically in great condition. I think that we have some talented kids here. All three of the incoming freshmen are touching over 10 feet, so now it’s a matter of getting them infused into our system and getting their timing down.
(on the 2014 schedule, which includes six opponents ranked or receiving votes in the preseason top-25 poll)
This is one of the tougher schedules that we’ve ever had. Marquette and Santa Barbara are both very good teams who didn’t lose a whole lot from last year and were NCAA tournament-caliber teams. Arizona State is ranked 25th in the nation; we play them in the fourth weekend. Arizona State was voted on by the Pac-12 coaches as the fourth-place team in their preseason team. If you’re voted fourth by the Pac-12 you’re better than 25th in the country, so they’re kind of underrated, I think. We’re playing Wisconsin, who finished second in the nation last year and brought in a new foreign player that’s really very good, so I think Wisconsin may be better than they were last year. And we’re playing BYU, who is ranked No. 9 in the country. They have one of the most dynamic outside hitters in the United States (Jennifer Hamson).
We also have Virginia Commonwealth, who was in the finals of their conference tournament last year, Pepperdine, Northern Colorado and Denver, and New Mexico State – who was in the NCAA tournament last year. All of those teams are going to be very good and challenging. Many of them are on the road or on a neutral court. We also play at home the first two weekends, and then we play on the road three weeks in a row.
(on the toughest Mountain West foes)
We play New Mexico on the road pretty early in the season, and I think New Mexico will be very good. They return an All-American in Chantale Riddle, and return almost everybody else on their roster, so I expect them to be an outstanding team. I also expect San Diego State and Utah State to both be very good, and I think the new coach at Wyoming (Chad Callihan) is helping them get better and they’ve got some stability and some continuity. San Diego State is always an unknown. They graduated a lot of players, but they always have kids in their pipeline. I know they got a transfer from Arizona (Chloe Mathis) that I think is very good. They’re constantly refilling with good kids, so they always worry me a little bit. The Mountain West is going to be better overall.
(on his coaching philosophy and how he teaches excellence)
We have a very sound way of teaching in a lot of areas. Our first-contact coach is (associate head coach) Brook Coulter, who spends a lot of time working with players. In volleyball, you have to be good fundamentally to handle the ball well, and she focuses on that and works extra with a lot of players, and the way she teaches it is a very simple but effective way to handle the ball.
We bring in good athletes who need a lot of training. You see that on the team right now. And then, we try and teach them sound things like arm-swing mechanics. Not every player is exactly the same, but what we want to do is teach them to do what works best for their body, and is effective and scores and maximizes their athleticism. The real key is, ‘What are you doing on your first contact? Are you serving and passing well? Are you handling the ball well?’ Then, you can let the athleticism work if you’re doing those things.
What do we do in terms of teaching excellence? We have some core values on this team, and we have constant work with our team where we talk about things like excellence and the history of this program and people who have paved the way for these players to be in a program like they’re in right now. My idea of teaching excellence is to get players to have open communication dialogue about it, and have them talk about it. We certainly help inject things into those conversations, but we have a lot of meetings where we’ll talk about what this program means, and what it’s been like for years, and what their role is like as a player to carry the tradition on. To do that, you can’t just step in and be good; you have to work very hard and be very disciplined, and it comes down to how you practice every day, whether or not you go to class, how you promote the program. All of that is the excellence that we want to have in CSU volleyball.
(on filling voids from non-returning players)
Any time a player leaves, we have to fill that hole. Sam Peters, she understood the game of volleyball very well and it hurts to lose her. Michelle Lawrence was also very good, I’m not going to lie; she was a freshman who we were very excited about, and it was sad to see her unhappy and leave. We have to fill that hole. It’s just like graduating players: You have to put it behind you and move on and fill that hole with new talent.
(on competition during fall camp)
I like to be open and look at how things are playing themselves out in practice. I like to give people chances in different positions, because sometimes by watching a player play you realize they’re a lot better at a particular thing than you thought they were, or they’ve made great strides in a certain area in the last year. We move people around a lot, and put them in different situations. Probably by the end of Week 1 we’re starting to narrow down what we think we want to do. Jaliyah Bolden is a good example. Jaliyah was training primarily as a middle all of her redshirt year. Now we’re going to move her around a little bit. She’ll still stay in the middle, but I want to see what other things she can do. It helps our practice, it helps her, it keeps her fresh and interested.
(on projected starters)
We have new people in a lot of spots. It’s pretty safe to say Kelsey (Snider), if she’s healthy, is going to play. The other middle blocking spot – Acacia (Andrews) is pretty good, Axi Poletto is good, Jaliyah is good. There’s a lot of things we can do there. With the outside hitting position – which is what we call the pin position – Michelle Lawrence and Kaila Thomas both left the program, so we have an open spot. Dri Culbert played there in the spring. Will she play there now? I don’t know, maybe. We could also play a new player there and Dri can play on the right. Dri, because of the fact that she’s an all-tool kid who can play the game, is going to play somewhere. It’s really a matter of who’s going to play where? We look at that, we stat everything; we just have to figure out which pieces you put in which spots.
Every one of the incoming freshmen is being looked at right now. It’s way too early to tell what the decision is going to be with those guys. I think Jaliyah is also an unanswered question. Really, we’ll see. I haven’t talked very much about Acacia Andrews, because I think she’s pretty good, and I think she’s earned the right to be an expected starter, but she’ll still be evaluated statistically against everybody else, as will every player.
Health is another thing. We have to keep people healthy. Today was hard. These guys did physical testing this morning, and then they were in the gym for four hours. We’ll go a little easier tomorrow, because we have to keep everybody healthy and in the right frame of mind.
(on the team’s identity coming off a record-breaking season)
The identity is us. We’ve had this discussion with our team several times. How do we approach a really difficult non-conference schedule knowing we can be a very good team and still struggle, and still take some losses? How do you do that when you’re coming off a season when your regular season record was 28-1? How do you face that and stay mature? Because it literally could happen. We could take losses and be a great team. That’s not an identity, really, it’s a task that we have to do. When we come out of that, I think what we’ll see is, ‘Are we competitive? Are we able to face every different challenge that we face, and play as well as we possibly can regardless of our opponent?’ That’s where I want to be as a coach.
(on former CSU women’s basketball player becoming the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA)
I think Becky Hammon’s deal is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in women’s sports. Becky Hammon is a pioneer, and we get to call her a Ram. That’s awesome.
(on which matches he’s most and least-looking forward to)
I’m looking most-forward, probably, to the opening weekend; least forward to New Mexico on the road, but I shouldn’t say that because last year we pulled out an amazing win aginst New Mexico on the road in front of a gigantic crowd. I look forward, really, to being in the season and playing every match; each match has its own take and its own character. But, I know that New Mexico road match will be hard; it doesn’t matter how good we are.
(on trying to schedule challenging teams)
These schedules take on a life of their own. The only thing I did that I really, really liked was that opening weekend tournament with Santa Barbara and Marquette. Then, with Wisconsin coming in I really liked that. But the two road tournaments ended up being tougher than I thought. The third weekend was going to be New Mexico State, UTEP and Kent State or something, and then all of a sudden that team doesn’t come in and they call me and tell me BYU is coming. Then, Arizona State, tells us, ‘Oh by the way, Pepperdine is coming.’ Then all of a sudden, Arizona State is voted fourth in the Pac-12. It ended up being tougher than I really wanted, but what the heck? We have to go win the Mountain West, I want to play good people. It can’t hurt us. What will hurt us is if we don’t win the matches we should win. Those other challenge matches against big-time teams, they are what they are. We’ve got to go out and pick off one or two of them and learn from them and get better. We can be a .500 team in non-conference and be better than last year, to be honest. There are five or six teams on this year’s non-conference schedule that are better than every team we played last year, to be honest. It’s going to be tough.
(on being ranked No. 18 in the preseason top-25 poll)
I’m happy. That shows respect for our program; that’s respect for the CSU program. We have to go out and prove it now.
(on what type of student-athlete it takes to play at CSU)
These players have a great deal of pressure. Nobody wants to be on a CSU volleyball team that doesn’t make the NCAA tournament. I guarantee you it weighs on them, so we try and talk about it as little as possible. The answer to that is to just go out and play at your absolute best as often as you can. They know the history of this program. They know what goes on here. I guarantee you they’re proud to be part of it, but they know that they have a role in it. It’s not about, ‘I’m good because I was recruited here.’ You have to be good and help CSU maintain this legacy.
(on his five-year contract extension)
This is a great place to coach, it’s a great place to be and I was happy to sign that extension. They compensated me very well, and I see it as a reward for my loyalty to this place, and for the success that we’ve had. I was excited to do it, and I’m excited for it to be public, because I think it helps the sport of volleyball a lot when you see those kinds of numbers. That helps volleyball, and I’m proud to be part of that. I want to be here; I’ve always wanted to be here, so to sign it is just icing on the cake.
It says a lot about the vision of this university. I credit (university president) Tony Frank as much as anybody, because he is a president who believes we need to move forward in athletics at this school. This place is committed to being great, and now these coaches and student-athletes have to go out and prove it.
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