Colorado State’s volleyball team continued growing its presence on the national stage last year as it climbed as high as No. 6 nationally and notched pre-season wins against premier teams such as Arizona State and No. 9 BYU.
But an even tougher non-conference schedule awaits CSU this season, according to Rams’ head coach Tom Hilbert.
Last year, the Rams went 31-2 before the NCAA Tournament, losing just one non-conference game to No. 4 Wisconsin and one in the Mountain West at UNLV. This year, the Rams will face a powerhouse in Texas, the team that ended their season in the Sweet 16, just eight matches into this year’s schedule.
The Sept. 13 contest against the Longhorns will take place in Austin, Texas. Furthermore, it will be the back end of a double-header for the Rams as they face Iona in Austin at 9 a.m. MT before the Longhorns match at 2 p.m. MT.
“I think that’s going to be a test to see how we are against a team that’s a Final Four caliber team,” Hilbert said. “Those are the kind of games where it’s not about saying we have to go in and win this game. We have to go in and compete well, and see what happens against a team of that caliber.”
But the game is more than just a test. Beating Texas is totally possible for the Rams, Hilbert explained.
“We’re going to score a point against them,” he said. “I’m not saying that in a negative way. If you can score once, you can score 25 times. It’s about stringing them together.”
Returning CSU starter Adriana Culbert, a senior hitter that recorded 15 digs in the tournament game with the Longhorns, thinks the Rams will give Texas a tougher match this time around.
“When we played them in the Sweet 16, we didn’t play our best volleyball, and I think we all know that,” Culbert said.
Hilbert is considering the Texas match similar to last season’s bout at home against Wisconsin when the Badgers were ranked No. 4 and beat the Rams 3-0, in the sense that it can mimic postseason environments.
“It helps you understand when you get to the Round of 16, this is the caliber of team you have to play,” Hilbert said.
In each of the 10 seasons the Rams have reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, that’s where they have been stopped every time.
Additionally, games against major teams on the national stage helps CSU gain recognition as a team that can dominate more than just the MW.
“More than anything, those type of matches are more about an experience for our players,” Hilbert said. “I want them to play against the top teams in the country, the top recruits in the country. I want our players to get out there because I believe we are a national caliber team, and I want to test us against the best in the United States, and they are one of the best.”
It is not just Texas that makes this year’s schedule tougher for the Rams, though. Hilbert said the teams on this year’s schedule will be of a higher average RPI than those from last year.
Four opponents from CSU’s non-conference schedule finished in the top 100 in RPI last season (Texas, Northern Iowa, Arizona State and Northern Colorado). Fellow MW members UNLV and Wyoming also finished at 58 and 61, respectively, in RPI.
The Rams face UNI in their third match of the season-opening Rams Volleyball Classic tournament Aug. 29 at home. The Panthers finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference last season with a 21-11 overall record.
CSU plays Arizona State and UNC in the CSU/UNC Tournament on Sept. 4 and Sept. 8, respectively.
A surprise visit from a professional team from overseas that was announced Tuesday night will also challenge the Rams before MW play begins Sept. 24 against Utah State.
The Shanghai Eastbest & Lensheng will scrimmage CSU at home Sept. 21. The match against the Chinese Volleyball League team will not count toward CSU’s stats or record.
CSU also scrimmaged a Chinese professional team in the spring of 2011, Tianjin Bridgestone.
“This team is probably going to be better than that team,” Hilbert predicted. “It will be a very entertaining match.”
Tickets go on sale Wednesday for the exhibition. Season ticket holders do not have the exhibition included in their ticket package and will have to buy separate tickets to attend the scrimmage. Season ticket holders will have their seats held for the first two weeks tickets are on sale for the exhibition, but after that those seats will be open to be bought by the public.
The Shanghai team will also play a game against Wyoming and another Colorado university, likely Northern Colorado or University of Denver, Hilbert said.
Collegian Assistant Sports Editor Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.