Make no mistake about it, tonight is a big match for the CSU volleyball team.
UNLV will be at Moby Arena, sitting tied with Boise State atop the Mountain West conference standings and a half game ahead of the Rams. A win over the Rebels would give the Rams a season sweep over UNLV and put them in better position statistically to win an eighth consecutive conference title. A loss and CSU would likely require some help from other MW teams to capture the title.
They are aware of the stakes, but that doesn’t change the way CSU is approaching tonight’s match. The mindset for the team is the same it has been the whole season, head coach Tom Hilbert said after Wednesday’s practice.
And interestingly, he also mentioned that UNLV has become an “emotional rival” for the Rams. Tonight will likely have a rivalry game feel to it, and UNLV will not shy away from the moment.
“They’re very competitive,” he said. “They know they have the capacity to beat us. They work and compete very hard. Those teams like to come here and play. They like being in front of a big crowd and they don’t feel intimidated.”
CSU took down UNLV in four sets 25-16, 25-14, 14-25, 25-21 on Oct. 8. The Rams arguably played their two most dominant sets of the season in the first two of that match. They hit .536 in the first set and .720 in the second while making quick work of the home team in both.
UNLV rallied to take the third set before CSU won a closely contested fourth. Freshman hitter Olivia Nicholson said a few weeks ago that the Rams found a level of intensity during that fourth set that they hadn’t displayed prior to that point.
Beating a team twice is no easy task. UNLV will be adapting and doing things differently than they did in the first matchup while CSU will be left somewhat in the dark as to what to expect from them.
“They’re the one making the adjustments,” Hilbert said. “We don’t’ really know what adjustments we have to make. The element of surprise will be in their favor.”
To beat the Rebels, the Rams don’t have to play a flawless match. There will be up-and-downs stretches and momentum swings. The key will be minimizing the downs and maintaining a consistent level of play.
“We just need to get a level and play well,” Hilbert said. “A lot of people talk about ‘You have to play at 100 percent.’ You know what it feels like to play well and get into a zone and flow. There’s going to be oscillations in it and you have to know how to get yourself back to that high level.”
From a player’s perspective, tonight’s match is what the type of match they dream about playing in. Both teams are vying to reach the peak of the conference, a win for either team can go a long way in deciding who gets the coveted automatic NCAA tournament berth that comes with the conference championship. And for CSU, they get to play at home.
“I feel like we’re all excited,” outside hitter Sanja Cizmic said. “We know they are going to go all-out. We’re real excited to play because we know how good we are and how good we can be.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michael_roley