SEATTLE- The Colorado State University women’s volleyball season has come to an end after they lost 3-1 to the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday 26-24, 22-25, 10-25, 17-25. The Wildcats pushed the Rams into longer points in which Kentucky took most of them and it seemed to be the difference in the match.
The first set was working well for the Rams as they recorded five blocks as a team and hit .238 compared to the Wildcats .190. Junior Alexandra Poletto was dominating by recording five kills on just eight attempts and zero attacking errors. Freshman Kirstie Hillyer was also leading the way at the net with a solo block and two more assisted blocks in the first set.
The Rams were holding on to a 24-22 lead before the Wildcats tied it up on an error by freshman Katie Oleksak. A quick CSU timeout steadied the ship and with a swing of the arm by Poletto and great defense by her and junior Sanja Cizmic at the net, the Rams took the last points with a kill and a block.
However, that early success would not last as the second set was when the Wildcats would take over. There was multiple points in which both teams made dig after dig, but Kentucky seemed to finish all of them off. These long rallies hurt the Rams not only on the scoreboard, but emotionally as well.
“They are very strong, they are athletic,” said Poletto. “They have a whole team that is a high attacking point.”
Despite these long rallies, the Rams hung in there and tied the set up at 20 after an error on Kentucky’s SEC Freshman of the Year Leah Edmond. Kaz Brown, with a .371 hitting percentage coming into the match, destroyed the Rams on the next two points with a couple of aggressive kills that the Rams could not respond to.
Edmond would make sure to hit the gas pedal in the next set after some early match mistakes. After CSU got the score to 6-5, the Wildcats would finish the set on a 19-5 run. The Rams were completely dominated in every facet of the game. Edmond record seven kills in the set and hit every ball harder than the last.
The Rams did not record a single block while the Wildcats had four and they seemed to dig every ball the Rams struck as they only score 10 points with only seven attack errors.
The fourth set would not bring about any change for the Rams as they dropped it 17-25. Senior Cassidy Denny trying to make up for her teams earlier mistakes of missing digs in the match by picking up six of them in her final set as a collegiate player. The Rams were able to block again after putting up four more, but the Wildcats matched them.
A 9-8 deficit made it seem as if the Rams had a chance to force a fifth set, but a 6-0 run featuring two attack errors by the Rams was the dagger that would end the Rams season. Denny continued to dive around the court trying to stop the Wildcats attack, but it was no use. Edmond put up four more kills in the set and Brown ended the season for the Rams with the help of Brooke Morgan on a block of Jasmine Hanna.
“They had some long point runs, which kind of demoralized us,” said head coach Tom Hilbert. “They got some confidence and rode it until the end of the match.”
The strongest part of the Rams coming into the game was blocking as they had 3.34 blocks per set. The Wildcats worked around this strength in the third and fourth set by mixing in quite a few more tap overs instead of straight on hard swings. The tap overs continued to fall right in between the Rams’ blockers and diggers.
The Rams also had no answer to Kentucky digging out so many attacks as they only hit .119 for the match. That number was slightly inflated due to Oleksak having a .571 hitting percentage on seven attacks. Poletto cooled off after the first set, but still led the team in kills with 12. Hanna had a tough night by her .073 percentage which came with only six errors, showing how well Kentucky was able to cover her attacks.
The look on Hanna’s face throughout the match was also a telling sign as the entire team looked frustrated that their attacks could not find the floor. It seemed at points that the only energy came from Hillyer yelling coming out of the locker room after intermission and before the match.
That lack of energy is might have what helped Edmond on Kentucky finish with 20 kills on the match and Brown recording eight blocks to lead the Wildcats.
Overall, it was an honorable season for the Rams who featured a team made up of mostly freshman or players who were getting their first real taste of full on playing time. Deny is the only senior on the team and could not have been more proud of her team and the experience she had with them.
“Three conference championships and four straight years in the tournament,” said Deny about what she will remember from her time at CSU, “but [each team Deny has been on] has been special and full of love and friendship.”
The Rams finish the season with a 21-9 record and did extend the schools streak of making the NCAA tournament to 22 straight seasons.
“Do I like the way they competed this year? Heck yeah I do,” said Hilbert, “we got kids out there who have no experience playing in this national light so they did a nice job.”
With almost the entire roster coming back next season and a bitter taste in their mouth on how this year ended, there is no telling what this maturing team can achieve next season.