It was well-documented in preseason camp that the CSU volleyball team would be young and reliant on several freshman to make sizable contributions.
Fast-forward 18 matches, and the class listed next to their names on the roster still reads “freshman,” but the rate at which several of them have adjusted to the collegiate game, combined with the impact they have had, is one of several main reasons why the Rams are currently 7-0 in Mountain West conference play heading into tonight’s away match against San Jose State.
Head coach Tom Hilbert has mentioned how much freshman setter Katie Oleksak has matured in her decision-making since the first few weeks of the season. Oleksak sits fourth in the NCAA, averaging 11.72 assists per set and has directed a Rams attack that is fifth in the nation in hitting percentage at .305.
But beyond Oleksak, several other youngsters have accelerated the maturation process and are doing a lot to aide CSU in its pursuit of another conference championship. Olivia Nicholson is hitting .290 and averaging 2.28 kills per set while also tallying 1.83 digs per set.
In her first two collegiate matches, Nicholson hit .562 with nine kills and nine digs in the opener against North Dakota State, and then followed it up the next night with a double-double consisting of 12 kills and 13 digs against St. Mary’s.
Defensive specialist Amanda Young has been making strides, which became most visible when she recorded a season-best 10 digs in a win over UNLV on Oct. 8. And middle blocker Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, who has played sporadically so far this season, provided a nice lift with eight kills and four blocks in a sweep over San Jose State on Sept. 24.
“What’s important in the college game has come to them very quickly,” Hilbert said. “That primarily revolves around them reading things better, adjusting to the speed, and keeping errors down. Those three things are what they’re doing.”
Young stated that the biggest obstacle she had to overcome was indeed the speed at which the game is played, and the promptness she needed to react with on defense.
For fans, it may come as a surprise to see these first-year players mature quickly in a short amount of time. But for the players, it might have just been a natural occurrence and a result of the upward trajectory the team has been one since the commencement of conference play on Sept. 22.
“It’s just something where you adapt as you go I guess,” Young said. “Sometimes you don’t even realize the growth that’s occurring as you’re playing. We came back after not playing in Moby for a while and it’s like ‘Wow we got a lot better in the short time we were on the road.’ I know I feel a lot more comfortable on the court than I did at the beginning of the year.”
Hilbert said that they have been working diligently with Young on her defensive technique. Similarly to any freshman in that position, she has had a tendency to become eager and charge at balls.
She undoubtedly had her best match of her young college career against UNLV in helping CSU lock down an important win over the Rebels. The key to her success that night, Hilbert said, was patience.
“We’ve been working with Amanda for a long time on some defensive technique things and not charging at balls,” Hilbert said. “I think she stayed back and was patient against them (UNLV). Once it happens one time you figure out ‘I don’t have to charge in to make plays. I can stay back and watch the game.’”
Staying patient certainly helped, but Young also said she got a pep-talk from senior libero and back row mate Cassidy Denny, who walked in her shoes three years ago when she started at defensive specialist as a freshman. Coincidently, Denny recorded her season-high for digs her freshman year with 15 against UNLV too.
“Cassidy has been very supportive,” Young said. “She was talking to me before the match and she told me how proud she was of my hard work. And she said ‘I know you’re going to have a big match and in my freshman year the match against UNLV was my season high for digs’ and that just sat with me.”
CSU began the season with a bit of a rocky start, at least by their standards with a 6-5 record in nonconference play that included a four-match skid in early September. The Rams seem to have found a rhythm now though, winning seven straight to begin conference play.
For both Young and Nicholson, who are both from Nebraska, the matches where things really started to click came at different times. For Young it was after the CU match, Nicholson the four-set win over UNLV.
“For me personally, I think the match where it all came together was UNLV,” Nicholson said. “I finally saw our hard work, our defense, and our competiveness show up and I think that set a high standard for the rest of conference play and that we can compete at that level. During that fourth set, the competitiveness and intensity from everyone on that court and on the bench was incredible.”
“I think the match where it clicked and we had to stop using the excuse of being young was after the CU match,” Young said. “We got done with that and it was like ‘Yeah we put up a good fight but we’re not getting the results we want.’ After the match we came into practice every day and the culture in the gym was different and since then it has gotten a lot better.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michael_roley