Colorado State volleyball will take a trip to Laramie, Wyo. Tuesday with a much more successful road behind them than the rival Cowgirls.
Though Wyoming is only one game behind the Rams in the Mountain West standings after the opening weekend, the Cowgirls have lost six of their last nine matches. Despite a less than stellar start to the season for Wyoming, the Cowgirls are tied for second in defense on hitting, limiting opponents to a .174 hitting percentage and sitting atop the conference in blocks (147). They will be tasked with slowing down one of the best hitting teams in the MW in CSU.
The Cowgirls blocking force is led by two middle blockers in junior Reed Copeland and redshirt freshman Jackie McBride. Both players reside in the top seven for total blocks in the conference. Defense is the catalyst for Wyoming, and added intel on the Rams hitters’ will allow them to devise a game plan to utilize their strength.
“They are a physical team, they are just young,” coach Tom Hilbert said. “They are really talented and when you play a team like that, what you do not want is for them to play their best game, because that puts them on par (with anyone).”
Fortunately for the Rams, Kirstie Hillyer and Alexandra Poletto are slowly returning to the lineup to join Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, allowing them to rotate middles and stay fresh. The Rams have the two best hitters by percentage in the conference in Hillyer and Hougaard-Jensen, enabling the Rams to counter Wyoming’s biggest strength, and give room to outside hitters Sanja Cizmic, Jasmine Hanna and Breana Runnels. Per usual, the offense will be orchestrated by setter Katie Oleksak who leads the conference in assists by a wide margin (604).
Another story to watch is Hanna’s chase for the all-time record in kills for CSU. Hanna currently sits at 1,019 kills, only 47 behind leader Megan Plourde (1,066). Hanna has kept the milestone on the back burner, but says her mom told her about it and is sure to be keeping track as the season goes on.
“It is very important (for our outside to have success),” Hanna said. “I think we are taking more of a blocking perspective this week. Since they have such strong middles, we need to be good blockers as outside hitters.”
Not to be discredited, the Rams boast a defense that just limited UNLV to a -.042 hitting percentage in three sets while recording 11 blocks to go with it. To this point, the Rams have dominated on both sides of the spectrum and with new found health are looking to continue their undefeated conference record this year.
“We prepare well,” Hilbert said. “We know we are getting everyone’s A-game so it is how we approach each (conference) match. We cannot take nights off, we cannot screw around and think we are going to beat these guys.”
The Rams will look to avoid the middles of Wyoming and rely on their outside hitters to produce at the same level they have to this point. The Rams have a three-middle rotation that can be utilized, but the real work will be done on the outside in hopes of playing to a Wyoming weakness as the Rams’ middles look to shut down the strength of the Cowgirls.
“We know they have a very fast middle offense,” Poletto said. “And they always have so the past three years we have really worked hard on making our block fast so that we are able to block them accurately.”
After the Border War on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., the Rams will enjoy a short break before heading to Colorado Springs to take on Air Force on Saturday. The breaks in between matches have allowed the Rams to get rest, the opposite of their out of conference schedule in which they played several weekend tournaments and multiple games in one day.
“(The breaks) help us with freshness,” Hanna said. “We are not constantly pounding our bodies so we can come out feeling a little fresher and our legs are helping us, we are not aching (as much).”
CSU dropped one spot to No. 24 in the coach’s poll despite the perfect weekend. Regardless of the slight drop in rankings, Hilbert is focused on preparing his team for each match.
“I look at the rankings,” Hilbert said. “But that is just the way things go and our job is to keep trying to win every match. That poll is really just for the media.”
Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.