Aug. 27, 2014
While Head Coach Tom Hilbert
and the Colorado State volleyball team are used to having a target on its back, the Rams prefer to fly under the radar, as the they did in 2013, winning a Mountain West-record 27 straight matches en route to a program-best .933 winning percentage during an expected rebuilding season.
The Rams will again be the hunted in 2014, however, returning five starters plus their libero. CSU begins the year ranked No. 18
in the AVCA Division I Coaches' Poll and is the favorite to win the MW championship for the fifth time in the past six years.
"This is nothing new to them," Hilbert said. "We know that we must bring our A game every night, because we're going to get everyone's best shot. It's an honor to be in this position, but we can't be satisfied."
Among the returners are a trio of 2013 All-Mountain West selections, two of which were AVCA Honorable Mention All-Americans a year ago.
Senior Deedra Foss
ranks sixth in CSU history for career assists, and is on pace to move into the top three by the end of the season. The MW Setter of the Year earned All-America Honorable Mention honors after finishing in the top 10 nationally for both assists per set and team hitting percentage. She'll set to fellow seniors Kelsey Snider
- who earned AVCA All-Region honors after ranking in the top 10 in the MW for hitting percentage and blocks per set - and Marlee Reynolds
- who led the team with 3.06 kills per set.
Also on the attack is right-side hitter Adrianna Culbert
, a six-rotation starter who earned All-America Honorable Mention status last year as a sophomore. In the back row, libero Jaime Colaizzi
will be assisted by returning starter Cassidy Denny
, a sophomore, and junior Kaitlind Bestgen
. Colaizzi's 445 digs last season were the fourth-most in CSU single-season history.
"We lose a couple key players, but for the most part, we bring back a lot of talent and veteran leadership," Hilbert said. "I really like this team and the potential they have. Defensively, from a ball-handling perspective, we're as good as we've been in a long time."
FRESH FACES FILLING IN
Barring injuries, Foss will continue to set, Colaizzi will again be the team's libero, Snider will line up in the middle and Reynolds and Culbert will attack from the pin positions. A few positions will be up for grabs, however, including Snider's partner in the middle and a couple attackers.
Sophomore Acacia Andrews
, who stands at 6-5 and showed promise during her lone start last season, has earned her spot among those in contention for a starting middle blocking position, Hilbert said. True freshman Alexandra Poletto
, a beach gold medalist in Canada, is also fighting for that spot, along with redshirt freshman Jaliyah Bolden
On the left, Hilbert has been impressed with true freshman Sanja Cizmic
, and also has options with 2013 Under Armour All-America Honorable Mention Jasmine Hanna
"I've been really impressed with the three freshmen and the two transfers, and how they've come in and adapted right away," Hilbert said. "They understand what we expect of them, and I believe that all of them have the chance to contribute for us this season."
In April, Hilbert added a pair of transfer setters. Crystal Young
, who won a national championship at Blinn College, and Grace Gordon
, who adds ball-handling depth, are both expected to see the court this season.
On the bench, Luke Murray
was named the Rams' new assistant coach. Murray will work primarily with the middle blockers, and brings to Fort Collins a national championship ring from his playing days at Penn State. JennaRae Jester joins Hilbert, Murray and associate head coach Brook Coulter
as volunteer assistant coach. Jester is familiar with the league, playing for Wyoming from 2007-10.
CSU built an impressive resume in 2013 but was ousted in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The players are determined to make a run in the tournament this year, and to help them reach that goal, the Rams strengthened their non-conference schedule, which includes two preseason top-10 opponents and six total teams which are ranked or receiving votes entering the season.
The highlight, no doubt, is a Sept. 6 home contest against 2013 national runner-up Wisconsin. Like the Rams, the Badgers return the majority of last year's lineup, and the matchup is expected to be the first tilt between two top-25 teams at Moby Arena since CSU took down No. 5 Nebraska during the 2011 home opener.
"Our fans appreciate good volleyball, and by bringing in some of the best teams in the United States, it's a great chance for us to showcase the sport of volleyball at Moby Arena," Hilbert said. "I'm excited to see how we stack up against one of the best teams in the country, and to do it in front of one of the best home-court environments in our sport.
Not to be overlooked, however, CSU opens the season against VCU (2013 Atlantic 10 runner-up), Marquette (2013 BIG EAST champion; No. 11 RPI) and UC Santa Barbara (2013 Big West champion).
Over the next week and a half, CSU will play regional rivals Northern Colorado (Sept. 3, Greeley) and Denver (Sept. 9, Fort Collins), in addition to 2013 MEAC champion Florida A&M and Wisconsin of the Big Ten.
The preseason wraps up with back-to-back road tournaments, both posing unique challenges.
In Las Cruces, N.M., CSU will face No. 9 BYU and New Mexico State. Both teams won their respective conference titles and played in the NCAA tournament in 2013, with the Cougars advancing to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. The weekend concludes with an afternoon matchup against former WAC foe UTEP.
The fourth week of the season includes Pepperdine, North Carolina Central and host Pepperdine. The Waves are a perennial NCAA tournament team, advancing to the Elite Eight in 2011, while No. 25 Arizona State was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12, behind Stanford, Washington and USC - three teams ranked in the top-five nationally in the AVCA preseason poll.
"This is one of the tougher schedules that we've ever had," Hilbert said. "All of our preseason teams are very good and challenging, and I think five or six of them are better than every team we played last year. We could be a .500 team in non-conference and be better than last year."
MOUNTAIN WEST FAVORITES
The five-time defending Mountain West champions are again picked as the favorites
to win the conference earning 97 points in the preseason poll. CSU and Hawai'i are the only two teams nationally to win their respective leagues each of the past five seasons.
Make no mistake, however, a sixth-consecutive ring will not come easy.
For one, it's never been done. CSU also won five consecutive regular-season championships from 2000 to 2004, but didn't earn the league's automatic berth again until 2007.
Secondly, the league will be much tougher than it was a year ago, Hilbert believes, when CSU cruised to a 19-1 conference record.
"It's going to be a fight night in and night out," Hilbert said, "which is a good thing, because it means that the league is developing, and it forces us to be at our best every night."
New Mexico is right behind the Rams, earning four of the 11 first-place votes. The Lobos return even more production than CSU does - including Preseason Player of the Year Chantale Riddle - and begins the year receiving top-25 votes.
Utah State - which had CSU on the ropes last year in Logan, Utah, before CSU staged an epic comeback to win its program-record 21st straight match - was tabbed to finish third in the Mountain West, and returns 10 letterwinners including an all-conference right-side hitter.
Last year's preseason favorite San Diego State was picked to finish fourth, with the top half rounding out with Wyoming and Boise State.
"We play New Mexico on the road pretty early, and I expect New Mexico to be an outstanding team," Hilbert said. "I also expect San Diego State and Utah State to both be very good, and I think (head coach) Chad Callihan at Wyoming is helping them get better."
A WINNING TRADITION
The proud legacy that Colorado State volleyball holds is not taken lightly, and Hilbert believes that it takes a special player to understand her role in a program with such stature.
"These players have a great deal of pressure," said Hilbert, who recently signed a five-year contract extension making him one of the highest-paid volleyball coaches in the country and a `Ram for life.' "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. 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."
All-time, the Rams rank among the most decorated programs in NCAA women's volleyball history:
- 19 conference championships, including five straight.
- 19 straight NCAA tournaments, seventh nationally.
- 25 tournament appearances overall, 11th nationally.
- 250 total weeks ranked, 14th nationally.
- 13 AVCA All-America selections, 17th nationally.
"We know that countless players before us have poured their blood, sweat and tears to get CSU volleyball to where it is today, and we want to carry that torch to the next group and continue this winning tradition," Foss said. "As seniors - Kelsey, Marlee and myself - we want to finish our careers at CSU with a fifth ring to fill our hands, and to elevate CSU volleyball to a new level so that the group after us can continue this proud tradition."