A Mountain West title may be on the line this Thursday when No. 23 Colorado State meets conference foe Boise State for the first time this season. The two squads were picked as the top two teams in the preseason poll, and they are the only undefeated teams left in conference play.
After defeating CSU in the only matchup between the two teams last year, Boise State went on to win the conference championship. The victory marked the Broncos’ first win over the Rams in program history. Heading into this year’s matchup, head coach Tom Hilbert realizes that both teams are better than they were a season ago.
“There’s a lot of things we are better at now than we were last year, but I’m sure (Boise State is) better too,” Hilbert said. “We have to look at it from this year’s team versus this year’s Boise team and try to figure out what game plan we are going to use.”
The game plan the Broncos have implemented centers around their digging ability. They make up for their mediocre blocking by leading the conference in digs per set with 16.16. In doing so, they have held Mountain West opponents to a .068 hitting percentage.
The Broncos also sport one of the best liberos in the conference in Maddi Osburn. The senior leads the Mountain West with 5.48 digs per set. Digging teams like the Broncos create matches that require a strong mentality to fight through long rallies, Hilbert described. The only way to get through is to keep swinging hard.
“You go up and you hit balls hard and they are going to dig them,” Hilbert said. “You got to be patient. There are some blocking matchups that work in our favor. We will try to find those, but they still have defenders behind them.”
“This whole week we have worked on swinging hard and going our hardest,” senior Jasmine Hanna added. “There have been matches where we have had to be patient and it could take two or three swings for us before we get a kill, but I think we are prepared.”
The outside hitters of Boise State dominated the 2016 match, led by 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Sierra Nobley. The current senior racked up 21 kills while her fellow outside hitter and current junior Sabryn Roberts had 14 kills, third most for the team.
In the preseason poll, Nobley was picked as the favorite to win Player of the Year honors again and looks to be making good on that campaign. She leads the Mountain West in kills per set with 4.88 per frame. She also paces the conference with 5.48 points per set, almost a full point ahead of Utah State’s Lauren Anderson in second place.
However, questions surround whether or not Nobley will even take the court as she has not played in the team’s first four conference matches.
“I think it is going to be the same thing for us whether or not she plays or whether she does play,” Hanna said. “We are going to take this team very seriously and prepare and we are going to play the same exact way.”
Despite her absence, the Broncos have swept three matches in the Mountain West so far. Roberts is third in Mountain West play in kills per set with 4.46 and middle blocker Laney Hayes leads conference play in hitting percentage with a .429 mark.
“We face hard hitters in practice every single day,” sophomore libero Amanda Young said. “I think we are used to digging hard balls like that so it won’t change a whole lot…We can’t control how hard they’re going to hit, but we can control how hard we are going to work on defense.”
The Rams mirror the Broncos in the statistical categories, but they do it more by committee rather than relying on one or two players. The Rams have no players in the top 10 of the conference in kills per set. But as a team, they are second in the category with 13.93 a frame, second behind only Boise State.
Part of this has to do with the Rams leading the Mountain West in hit percentage at .317. The mark is almost 80 percentage points above the next best squad. Sophomore middle blockers Paulina Hougaard-Jensen and Kirstie Hillyer lead the MW in hit percentage at .426 and .422, respectively. Senior outside hitters Hanna and Sanja Cizmic are also inside the top 10 with .306 for Hanna (7) and .302 for Cizmic (9).
The match might be the toughest one the Rams will compete in the for the rest of the year as Boise State is the only other Mountain West school ranked in the top 100 of the latest RPI standings. CSU came in at No. 31 to lead the conference.
Hilbert believes that Boise State presents a challenge on the same scale of Michigan or Florida State, two nationally ranked teams that CSU defeated. Therefore, a win against Boise State would go a long way in deciding the Mountain West.
“(Boise State) is good in so many ways,” Hilbert said. “You go out and try to win the game. It’s not going to devastate us if we don’t, but it would certainly put us in the driver’s seat if we do.”
CSU will look to take the helm with first serve scheduled for 7:30 p.m. After the showdown, the Rams will finish the weekend with a road match against Utah State (11-5, 3-1 MW) on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44.