Entering the final month of Mountain West Conference play, No. 20 Colorado State has shifted its focus towards specific details in their game and they executed that philosophy well Thursday night with a sweep of the Air Force Falcons (25-19, 25-22, 25-15). The win marks the Rams 48th straight victory over the Falcons giving them a 48-1 all-time record against the Academy and a ninth sweep in their 12 conference matches.
Head coach Tom Hilbert does not care about the history though as he was still his same fiery self on the sidelines. He described his team as having the jitters to start to the match, especially on the defensive side. Senior McKenna Thornlow felt a big brunt of Hilbert’s coaching with her three receiving errors in the match.
Freshman Maddi Foutz switched jerseys after the first set into a bright orange top to take over the libero spot for the rest of the match. This was not out of frustration, however, as Hilbert planned earlier in the day to give the young defensive specialist some experience in the spot.
“I think right now (Foutz’s) service receive stats are pretty comparable to Amanda’s (Young),” Hilbert said. “(Foutz) is a really good left back and this is a team that really hits at your left backs.”
Those early jitters did not cost the Rams the first set as the Falcons struggled to serve the ball. Air Force had five service errors in the first set with most of them coming at the end of a short run to give the Rams the momentum back.
“I felt like we were jittering on service receive and on defense all night, but sometimes that happens,” Hilbert said. “Air Force has something to do with that because they were really driving serves, doing a nice job serving people tough.”
Frustration hit a peak in the second set once the Falcons took a 9-7 lead on a hitting error by senior Sanja Cizmic. Following the timeout, Foutz made the defensive play of the match with back-to-back diving digs that eventually lead to a hammering kill from sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen.
Defensive specialists were not the only ones having problems early as the Rams blocking force had only two blocks in the first set. As the match went on, Hilbert pushed his net blockers to be better. Redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer answered the call with a solo block and two more assisted blocks in the third set to finish with five total blocks.
“I think it was mainly better execution,” Hillyer said on the difference in blocking between sets. “After the first set, we knew we needed to turn it around so I think we just kind of picked up our blocking game and that’s really what made the difference.”
Jasmine Hanna did not have any problems at the beginning of the match and played very consistent throughout the match. She finished with 12 kills to lead the Rams and finished with a .385 hitting clip. Hilbert expressed how pleased he has been with senior year performance of the Rams all-time leader in kills.
“She is playing great and she’s doing it night in and night out,” Hilbert said. “This is what senior year should be like and I think she worked very hard in the offseason, she’s done everything she is supposed to do.”
“Sometimes I wish I could incorporate more power…maybe getting more kills,” Hanna said. “At the end of the day I’m going to be consistent and I think that is good for my team. It helps me because I know that I’m going to get a good ball every time from Katie (Oleksak) and I’m going to have people covering me and things like that and I think I help my team by ‘I’m not going to hurt us.’”
The win against Air Force gives the Rams a 144-7 all-time set record against the Falcons and also provides a four game conference lead with six games left to play in the Mountain West. With a 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament appearance on the horizon, the Rams and Hilbert are looking to improve on different areas of their game with each remaining conference match.
“I talk about (what to focus on) before the match even starts like, ‘Let’s do this skill area really well today,’” Hilbert said. “We have to start thinking about how do we control our game? How do we consistently be good at things night after night after night?”
CSU will flip the calendar and take the court next on Nov. 2 against the Utah State Aggies at home. With a win, the Rams could set themselves up for a title-clinching match against the Boise State Broncos on Nov. 4, provided the San Jose State Spartans lose one match before then. The match against the Aggies is set to begin at 7 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44