Marlee Reynolds tried mercifully hold back the tears. But in the end, her emotions won out, releasing five seasons worth of frustration and postseason disappointment down her cheeks as she described the atmosphere at Moby Arena Saturday night.
The senior outside hitter from Dalhart, Texas, who had yet to play past the first weekend of the NCAA volleyball tournament in five years at Colorado State, was a part of the team that finally kicked the “overrated” stigma.
For CSU, one of the top volleyball programs nationally over the last 15 years, Saturday’s five-set win over archrival and No. 19 Colorado was as much of a relief as it was a triumph. A team that has gone 155-29 and won six consecutive Mountain West championships since its last trip to the Sweet 16, held on to beat big, bad “big brother” in one of the best sporting events I’ve ever witnessed. But of course, it wasn’t without a little drama.
In the first two sets Saturday night, Colorado State looked like a team deserving of a No. 9 ranking and the honor of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament on its own court. Led by Reynolds and fellow senior Kelsey Snider, CSU jumped on the Buffs early and often in the first two sets, outplaying a Buffaloes front line that head coach Tom Hilbert admitted was more athletic than the Rams’.
With a pro-CSU crowd of 6,011 at Moby ready to celebrate, CSU buckled under the pressure in the third and fourth sets.
Buoyed by three consecutive kills from star outside hitter Taylor Simpson, CU jumped out to a 5-1 lead early in the third set. CSU would eventually rally to tie the game at 23 before two kills from Alexis Austin gave the Buffs their first sign of life of all night as they took the set 25-23.
It’s a rivalry, there was no way CU was just going to fold, right?
The fourth set was a much different story, but unfortunately for the Rams, had the exact same result.
During the fourth frame, the Rams and Buffs had the volleyball version of a heavyweight boxing game. Each team traded body shots, tying the game at 16 different points. But yet again, it was the Buffs who got the knockout with two more kills from Simpson and another from Austin to win the set 26-24.
As the teams switched sides for the fifth and final set, a look of worry crept across the faces of CSU fans. Their team, who had played only two five-set matches all season before Saturday night, was on the brink of an epic collapse even greater than the one just a year ago where a 28-0 CSU team, who was up two sets to none on San Diego State, fell apart and lost the final three to the Aztecs.
The Buffs, who have a visible disdain for CSU after Rams head coach Tom Hilbert turned the Buffs’ offers to coach in Boulder down a few years ago, began to see a chance to upset their bitter in-state rivals opening right before their eyes.
To no one’s surprise, the final set of back-and-forth roller coaster match, went just that way. Each team again trading punches, looking for the knockout. Each team ducking those attempts and delivering back one of their own. Staring the end of another magical season directly in the face trailing 14-13, CSU responded one final time.
A kill by freshman Alexanda Poletto tied it at 14.
An attack error by Austin put the Rams up 15-14.
And as Austin rose up looking for yet another kill, Poletto, and Adrianna Culbert shut the door on the Buffs one final time, delivering a knockout block that sent Moby Arena into a frenzy and the Rams on to the Sweet 16 for the first time in five years.
A CSU team who had fallen just short so many times before, finally found its Rocky Balboa moment on the final swing of the best heavyweight fight since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.