A broomstick is becoming the best friend of No. 20 Colorado State volleyball, who swept the UNLV Rebels (25-14, 25-18, 25-19) Thursday night for their eighth sweep in nine conference matchups. The win gives the Rams a perfect 9-0 record halfway through the Mountain West schedule.
Sophomore middle blocker Paulina Hougaard-Jensen took charge early by jumping out in the first set with five kills to lead the Rams (19-2, 9-0 MW). UNLV (7-15, 3-6 MW) had no answer for the Denmark native who carved out a space in the middle of the net by continually hammering home kills.
“(Paulina) was outstanding,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “Those numbers are All-American type numbers.”
The hot start would carry over into the second set and onto the defensive portion of Hougaard-Jensen’s game. UNLV looked to make a comeback in the middle of the second set when they pulled within three after a service ace to make it 14-11 in favor of the Rams. Hougaard-Jensen had different plans, though, as she scored the next three points for the Rams off back-to-back kills and a solo block.
Hilbert said earlier in the week how he wanted his team to improve in the blocking portion and the Rams responded Thursday night by picking up 10 total blocks.
“I thought we did a good job (with blocks), especially early in this match,” Hilbert said. “We’ve been really focusing a lot on penetration and making sure we reach to the other side of the net.”
Hougaard-Jensen cooled down in the third set, partially due to Hilbert wanting to work in fellow middle blocker Alexandra Poletto. The senior from Canada logged a couple of kills with a block in her limited time.
The Rams other starting middle blocker, Kirstie Hillyer, struggled a bit on offense with seven kills, four errors and a .167 hitting percentage. She made up for it on defense, however, as the Mountain West leader in blocks per set put up four more on the Rebels.
UNLV’s only lead of the match came in the middle of the third set when they took a 14-13 advantage off a kill by Thea Sweder. Freshman Mariena Hayden kept the Rebels alive in the match with 13 kills and a .400 hitting percentage, but UNLV could not do much outside of her, finishing at .093 for the match with one block.
The Rebels’ lead would be short lived as the Rams proceeded to go on a 7-1 run thanks to a kill and block by Poletto, a couple kills from redshirt freshman Breana Runnels and a service ace from freshman Jenna Heinemeyer.
In the third set, libero Amanda Young put on a highlight reel rally by diving for consecutive pancake digs on the Rebels’ attacks. Her efforts eventually led to the Rams picking up the point as the sophomore continues to improve in her first season as libero.
“She has certainly gotten better, she is understanding what she is supposed to be doing,” Hilbert said. “It’s an area that we have been focusing a lot on and I’m happy we are improving defensively.”
Runnels went on to pace the Rams in kills with 11 followed by Hougaard-Jensen’s 10 spikes. Sophomore Katie Oleksak picked up 40 assists and tied the team high in blocks with four (Hillyer, Hougaard-Jensen).
At the halfway point of the conference season, the Rams have only lost two sets. With such dominance, it is easy to become complacent, something Hilbert stresses that his team has to avoid if they want to compete against the big-time opponents they could potentially play later in the season.
“My concern is that we make sure we understand how to play against good competition,” Hilbert said. “It’s one thing to come in here and (sweep UNLV) tonight but when we are playing someone like a Boise State or New Mexico even, we’ve got to be better and we’ve got to sustain it.”
The weekend road trip ends Saturday for the Rams when they take on the New Mexico Lobos. CSU swept the Lobos at home earlier this year, but did allow Lauren Twitty of New Mexico to have one of her best matches of the year. CSU will look to slow Twitty down when their match gets underway at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44.