Yet another season has begun undefeated for CSU’s volleyball team as the Rams swept Baylor, UC Davis and Northern Iowa without surrendering a single set. Once again, CSU looks to be the clear favorite to win the Mountain West regular season title, and if it does, it will be its seventh consecutive conference championship.
This is the only school in the NCAA to have won six conference championships in the past six seasons. In the last 16 years, CSU has captured the MW crown 12 times. For 20 straight seasons, the Rams have appeared in the NCAA Tournament.
There’s only one problem: CSU has never been past the Sweet 16.
It’s time for a change in how CSU athletics are perceived on the national stage of collegiate athletics. At this point, fans have to be wondering what it will take for this volleyball program to make the leap from being on the fringe of the national championship conversation to actually being a part of it.
I’m not saying that what Tom Hilbert has done with this program has been unsatisfactory. On the contrary, he already has the tough part complete. CSU has become a destination for top recruits with Hilbert at the helm. The man is great at what he does. He wins. He ranks 10th all-time among NCAA coaches in winning percentage, and 17th in total career wins.
But with increased success comes increased expectations. After being stopped in the Sweet 16 six times in his career, including last season against Texas, Hilbert has to be hungry for a deep tournament run and a serious shot at a national championship. It’s all about making that final step with this program.
“For as long as I’ve been here, a Mountain West Championship is awesome, but that’s not the only thing we work towards,” senior hitter Adrianna Culbert said Monday after practice. “We work for the NCAA Tournament.”
Hilbert certainly has his players in the right mentality.
Fans really need not settle for just another MW title. It’s great for a program to be respected by its conference, but gaining that respect should simply be a means to ending a season on a podium.
Establishing CSU athletics as a contender on the national stage should be a priority, and not just in volleyball. The football program made giant strides under Jim McElwain, and there should be no reason it regresses in building toward regularly competing with schools from Power 5 conferences. Both the men’s and women’s basketball programs need to continue on their way, too.
“We get that the big conferences are the best, but it would be great if we were actually a part of the conversation, because right now, we’re just a Mountain West team,” Culbert said. “We are up to that caliber. We want to get there so we have that respect.”
CSU fans should stop devoting their attention solely to how the Rams are doing in the Mountain West. Winning the conference shouldn’t cause fans to bat an eyelash if they really want these athletic programs to be considered top-flight.
Hilbert believes it’s totally reasonable to think his team could enter the realm of national championship contenders, and join schools like Penn State, Ohio State, Texas and Nebraska. He knows his team is close to making the final stride into the circle with the elite of the elite.
“By virtue of the conference we’re in, people ask, ‘How do you do this?'” Hilbert said. “You do it by not thinking we’re a Mountain West team. We’re a state land-grant school, we’re the same thing as Ohio State, Penn State, everyone. We have to quit thinking about ourselves that way, (as a mid-major school). We need to start thinking of ourselves as just as good as any state university in the United States.”
Friday’s match against Arizona State presents a chance for the Rams to prove themselves against a top-25 Pac-12 team. The Rams moved up to No. 9 from No. 12 in the AVCA Division I Coaches’ Poll, while the Sun Devils moved up one spot to No. 15.
“I’ve had teams here that were very talented and athletic, that had they played in the Pac-12 or the Big 10, I’m not saying they would have won, but we would have been a better team because of it and gone further in the NCAA Tournament because of it.”
Games like these against ASU are a measuring stick for CSU’s progress in its quest toward recognition as elite. Colorado State athletics have entered an era that allows teams to be held to a higher standard. Let’s hold them to it.
Collegian Assistant Sports Editor Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.