Winning is nothing new for the Colorado State volleyball team. And you can chalk that up as the understatement of the year.
The No. 13 Rams clinched their seventh consecutive Mountain West title this season and will make their 21st straight appearance in the NCAA tournament when they take on Loyola Marymount in first round play Thursday. Over the 21-year stretch, CSU has advanced past the first round 14 times and has made six appearances in the Sweet 16.
This winning tradition continued this season as CSU boasts a 26-3 record and finished the season on a 20-game winning streak, including an unblemished conference record, making it the first MW team to run the tables in conference play since the 2003 CSU team.
One of the keys to the success for CSU this year could be attributed to the growth and continuous improvement of the team during the course of the season.
“They have exceeded my expectations in their development,” Hilbert said. “What we were earlier in the year and what we are now is so different. It really makes me feel good about this group.”
Despite the success of the team this year, the path did not start out ideally. Prior to the season, there were several questions looming about how CSU would match the success it had last season after graduating four of its stars. As is the case with many teams in the preseason, the Rams were searching for their identity.
“We didn’t know who we were as a team,” senior Alex Reid said. “We had a lot of really talented players but we didn’t know how to get that together in one team yet.”
CSU suffered an early season setback, being swept at home in early September by then-No. 15 Arizona State. The Rams also fell on the road at then-No. 4 Texas, who is seeded No. 3 overall in the NCAA tournament bracket, and then to Texas A&M in five sets. Following this road trip, a choice had to be made as to what direction the rest of the season could go in.
“When we came back from our Texas trip, that was definitely a hard trip for us, “Reid said. “But we really buckled down and tried to figure out, who do we want to be? Do we want to be this team that everybody thinks isn’t going to be very good or do we want to work our butts off, come together and start winning.”
The Rams responded by taking their level of play to a new level, winning their next 20 regular season games, including all 18 in the MW, 12 of which were 3-0 sweeps. In addition to the Texas road trip, another pivotal turning point came at home against Boise State, where CSU fell behind 2-1 in the first three sets before rallying to win the final two, showing the ability CSU had to make key plays at the right moments.
“Once conference started, there was a shift in our mindset,” senior libero Jaime Colaizzi said. “That match against Boise proved to us we could win close games and that we were good in end game situations. In comparison to how we played in preseason, we are so much better now. I don’t even think it’s the same Colorado State team that was in preseason versus now.”
During conference play, the team received contributions from a number of sources and in turn the confidence level of the team soared. Most importantly, they bought in to what it takes to sustain success, and it has paid off.
“Everybody on our team’s confidence grew,” Hilbert said. “They listened to what needed to be done, and now they’re doing it.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @michael_roley.