After a several year regular season hiatus, the volleyball version of the Rocky Mountain Showdown will return on Saturday night in Boulder.
Colorado State (4-4) and Colorado (5-2) haven’t squared off in regular season play since the 2010 season when CSU swept the Buffaloes at Moby Arena.
But the most memorable meeting between the state’s two flagship universities came in the 2014 NCAA tournament with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. The Rams won a five-set barnburner (25-22, 25-21, 23-25, 24-26, 16-14) in what head coach Tom Hilbert undeniably ranked as the top match in his coaching career, even more than when CSU rallied back from down two sets to take down No. 5 ranked Nebraska at Moby in 2011.
“It was without a doubt the biggest and most meaningful match in my career,” he said. “Nebraska was a regular season game and it was cool but if you consider the importance of that match (CU) and the rivalry and everything about it. It was the most meaningful match of my career.”
“I don’t even know if you can find the words,” senior Cassidy Denny, who played as a sophomore in that match, said. “We’ve been talking about it and it’s probably the best and most fun game I’ve been a part of. Even if we hadn’t come away with a win, it still would’ve been the best and most fun game I’ve played.”
Prior to that meeting, the Rams and Buffs had gone several years without playing. CU cancelled the match before the 2011 season. Hilbert and former Buffs coach Liz Kritza “could never come to an agreement” about continuing to play the rivalry Hilbert said.
But last December Kritza was dismissed as head coach and the Buffs hired a familiar face to head their volleyball program. Jesse Mahoney, who served as an assistant under Hilbert at CSU from 2005-2011 before spending the past four seasons as the head coach at Denver University, took the reigns of the CU program. Naturally, after Mahoney was hired, the agreement to renew the rivalry happened rather quickly.
Hilbert, who has several former assistants who are now head coaches in the Division-I ranks, couldn’t help but be happy when his former pupil landed the head gig at CU.
“It was bound to happen because he (Mahoney) is an alum there and I knew it was his dream job,” Hilbert said. “I was very supportive of him getting it and he’ll do a great job. And having strong volleyball programs in the state is important for all of us.”
The Rams have won seven consecutive matches against the Buffs, including the NCAA tournament triumph two years ago. However, many current CSU players have not faced CU. Only four current CSU players were on the roster in that game- Denny and juniors Jasmine Hanna, Alexandra Poletto, and Sanja Cizmic.
And for players who weren’t there it’ll be a brand-new experience. Even for the players who did play, it will be a new experience playing on the road in Boulder, in front of mostly unfriendly fans.
“I think it is possible to get too hyped,” Denny said. “Especially with CU. We want to win and we want to win so badly…I think the freshman are going to be really hyped up especially since it’s at CU. There’s going to be a lot of people there. Last time I played them there was a lot of people for us and this time there’s going to be a lot of people against us, so it’s going to be different for me but it’s really exciting.”
Anybody growing up in Colorado usually has some type of opinion on the CSU-CU rivalry, or if they don’t and choose to attend one of the rival schools, they form one pretty quickly as redshirt freshman Kirstie Hillyer did.
Hillyer, who is from Bayfield — a town of about 2,000 people in the southwestern part of the state — did so upon arriving at CSU.
“Growing up in my small town I was never really around the rivalry,” Hillyer said. “I feel like it was in the Front Range and I didn’t really know about it until high school and when I started hearing about it I had already committed to CSU. I was just excited to come up because from the get-go as soon as I heard about it, I was against CU 100 percent. Just hearing about it and now being a part of it I’m really excited.”
Everybody is well aware of the football game that pits CSU against CU. And men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and women’s soccer play the Buffs annually. Volleyball has been somewhat left out of the fun of getting to play CU, but that has just made the anticipation of Saturday’s match even nicer.
“Everyone gets to play them once a year and we have to wait for tournaments or the NCAA, “Denny said. “I think the waiting makes it a little sweeter. It’s not an every year type of thing and it increases the rivalry between us because now we haven’t played them in two years. We’re a completely different team, they’re a completely different team. It’s really just who’s going to play hard and come out with the win.”
Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michael_roley