CSU volleyball threw a less than ideal welcoming party for the University of Albany sweeping the Great Danes (25-12, 25-13, 25-12) to open up its final tournament of the regular season.
Coming into the match, the two teams had much different story lines to their season as Albany came in winless while only winning two sets on the year, while the Rams looked to increase their win total on the year to nine with a singular loss. The winless streak lives on for Albany as they never truly found their footing on the floor of Moby Arena signaling what could be a long weekend in Colorado.
In their final tournament, the Rams were able to seal their undefeated record in the beginning match. Winning the opening match has proved as a catalyst for later success in the tournament, as the Rams are also undefeated in each proceeding match.
“I think it’s really important (to win the first match),” Katie Oleksak said. “It establishes how we are going to play throughout the tournament. We will get some rest and be fresh tomorrow.”
Blocking a large majority of the balls hit their way, the Rams utilized defense early to jump out to a double-digit lead in the first set. Tom Hilbert was able to utilize multiple bench players for the Rams, adding game experience throughout the team as the conference schedule approaches. Jessica Jackson was able to star in her first significant playing time of the year, leading the team in hit percentage (.636), registering eight kills. Oleksak was able to spread the ball around, allowing eight Rams hitters to register a kill in the match.
“It makes (our bench players) better,” Hilbert said. “It is good to get them some repetitions, and it is also important to get to rest Sanja (Cizmic) a little bit because she has been going very hard.”
Taking advantage of Albany mistakes was the story of the match for the Rams. Several errant passes and digs sunk the Great Danes’ chances. Through the first set, Albany was hitting -.037 with only six kills. The team also failed to block a single attempt by the Rams until the beginning of the second set.
Due to a lockdown blocking performance by the Rams, Albany resorted to tipping the ball over the block in an attempt to calm the aggression of the Rams’ defense. The game plan failed to conjure up a rhythm for the Great Danes as Oleksak and Amanda Young were able to dig several balls behind the block.
“We know where the ball was going,” Hilbert said. “That allows us to clamp (down) a little bit, but even when they did not set (Akuabata Okenwa), we knew where the ball was going because we watched enough film and we were able to put doubles on them.”
Getting into a rhythm was a big part of the Rams hitting success as they hit .466 in the match. The hitting percentage was their best of the year and served as a boost of confidence heading into their more difficult opponents later in the tournament.
Playing at home in their second consecutive tournament, the Rams avoided the lag that travel can bring and approached the match with a team that is slowly regaining their health. Poletto was able to return and play throughout the match while fellow senior McKenna Thornlow returned after her stint in the concussion protocol.
After a playing time increase due to injury, Paulina Hougaard-Jensen has been able to grow into a vital Rams player. After winning a Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week Award earlier in the week, Hougaard-Jensen looked to continue her run. Showcasing her worth on both sides of the floor in the match, Hougaard-Jensen accrued a team leading five blocks to go along with five kills.
The Rams were able to avoid playing down to a lesser team and padded their record once again after being elevated to No. 22 in the nation earlier this week. The match represented one of their pair of matchups against opponents under .500 on the year in the tournament before facing the University of Colorado Saturday night.
In their first match on Saturady, the Rams will square up against Xavier at 1 p.m. before their rivalry game against the Buffs to end the tournament at 7 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.