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CSU volleyball loses first game of season in five-set thriller against SDSU

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Photos by: Eliott Foust

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What many thought to be the impossible became a reality when No. 9 Colorado State fell to San Diego State in Moby Arena.

The Rams lead the Aztecs 2-0 heading into the third set as its 28th win was 25-points away. An upset on the Rams home court brings a perfect season to a close. CSU has been working on struggles from the start of the season up until now.

While struggles of blocking, pass-serve receive and a consistent momentum change have been able to surpass opponents in the past, Wednesday nights struggled became the difference between a win and a loss.

Three Reasons Why CSU Volleyball Lost

Reason 1: San Diego State out-blocked CSU

It has been a struggle from the first game of the year for CSU to consistently block other teams. With a new set of starting middles and outside hitters, the offense for the Rams has been about versatility.

That same versatility that has been an asset to the offense turned out to backfire as the Aztecs offense picked up on key plays and blocking strategies. It was not until the fifth set that Hilbert took out outside hitter Michelle Lawrence for Kaila Thomas.

Adjustments needed to be made sooner in order to shake up the Aztec blocking patterns.

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San Diego held the CSU offense to .154 in set three and .158 in set four because the Rams were unable to get the kill. The Aztecs were able to get its arms up and deflect the ball back onto the CSU court or get it back to a played on its own court.

Reason 2: San Diego State forced tough serve receive and passing

Because the blocking by San Diego shut down the CSU offense, that caused the Rams to rely on pass and serve receive for help.

The Aztecs had five service aces on the night as its remaining serves were tight on the net and a challenge for the CSU defense.

The Rams have previously struggled in receive situations that pushed players out of its comfort zones or when opponents continuously would score points on one specific player.

When CSU did not get a strong pass off the serve or a kill, the Rams struggled to get the best setup for a kill, playing into point lost at the net and points loss for a struggling comeback.

Reason 3: The Aztecs gained momentum

When a team has momentum and a long rally on its side, the ability to change the drive and tally up points comes as a challenge.

Against a skilled team like San Diego as well as a team that has scouted CSU can not be overlooked. Coming out of the break, the Aztecs ever one set from becoming another victim of the Rams.

With nothing to lose, San Diego took risks, took control of Moby Arena and was able to take the energy as it used it against the home opponent.

Momentum is key in sports. If you do not have it on your own side, it becomes a race to get it back rather than distance yourself from the opposing team. CSU lost the momentum in the third and fourth set as it could not get it back for the win.

The Aztecs could not be stopped.

ANALYSIS: The only loss is the toughest pill to swallow

Just when the CSU volleyball team had their fans convinced they were invincible, the only, and most devastating blow was delivered to the Rams on Wednesday night.

The 27-game winning streak is snapped and the perfect season is as good as gone after CSU was forced to deal with watching its conference rivals, San Diego State University, hand them the first loss of the year just two games short of finishing undefeated.

However, the biggest heart-breaker the Rams have to deal with extends further than simply losing their first match — not closing out the regular season with an undefeated record likely means that CSU will not be able to host an opening round of the NCAA tournament, an accomplishment the Rams were trying to bring home for the first time since 2009. Being able to host a section of the tournament would have brought people from across the country to Fort Collins, as well as built upon the reputation surrounding the program as an elite member of the AVCA.

The unbelievable start the Rams took on in 2013 led them to a position they never would have believed they would be in at the beginning of the year.

Having graduated its top-tier senior players, the squad was written off and scrapped as a team in a rebuilding year, having Colorado State looking down the road rather than just in front. The fact that this year’s team was a contender for hosting an NCAA tourney with an undefeated standing says a lot about what head coach Tom Hilbert can do with the cards he’s been dealt.

So now, with a bitter taste lingering in its mouth, the biggest measuring test for CSU will be how it will respond to Wednesday’s loss. The Rams have one match remaining on its regular season schedule against UNLV at home Friday night. The final match appears almost to be a must-win for the Rams, as they will need to show that they can recoup and not ride a two-game losing streak heading into the tournament, where the competition will be fierce.

On the other hand, the loss might serve as a benefit for CSU. The Rams have yet to experience what defeat feels like this season, and knowing that they’ve been forced to handle coming up on the wrong end of the scoreboard has the possibility to power CSU in the opening round where it has struggled.

Off the fast hands of the Aztec offense, the ball is back in your court, Hilbert. How well your team does at returning the attack will have to be seen on Friday.

POSTGAME: Hear from Hilbert

Hilbert opening statement: Well, this is a hard to swallow loss after winning the first two sets convincingly. But you know, what happened was they made some adjustments in personnel. 16 (Baylee Little) came in and she was very, very good obviously — hit .750. We didn’t see her play last time we played them. We did a good job on their outside hitters, but that wasn’t enough, they were beating us with some other players. The middles and the rights, really it was them defending much better coming out of the break and blocking much better, and serving tough. They were playing with a great deal of aggressiveness and we didn’t respond very well, especially in the third set. We needed to push back a little bit, they had those long point runs and then we played two competitive sets with them that they end up winning. This is a team that has talent and when you give them momentum and they’re able to beat you. They certainly outserved us, they beat us in the serving and passing game after Set 2 significantly. We were forced in those sets to get away from what we wanted to do offensively. They were just good and they tracked what we were doing and made a lot of stops. My hat is off to San Diego State, they played well. But I’m still very proud of our team for the one that we were on. And for playing courageously tonight.

Q: How big of a difference was it that Baylee Little made, it was on the slides it seems that she got you?

Hilbert: She was good, she has a fast arm, yeah she was good. We needed to take cross court and force her to hit line cause she made a couple of errors going down the line but we weren’t able to do that.

Q: Can you talk Deedra a little bit, you guys won the first two sets in dominant fashion, you’re up 19-13 in the third set and then things just kind of turned around. How stunned are you by the way things finished?

Deedra Foss: I think San Diego State just stepped up their game, you know they played really well and we just couldn’t keep up with their momentum and we just never got ours back.

Q: Considering the run that you guys were on, that has to make this loss harder than any other loss.

Foss: I think its a tough loss but its better to get it out of the way now before we make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Q: Dri, can you talk about what defensive adjustments they made because it seems like the seams that you guys were finding early on just weren’t there later on.

Culbert: They shifted their defense a little bit, but overall they were just more aggressive going after balls than in the first two sets. They were playing with a nothing-to-lose attitude.

Q: Tom, like you said, their top hitters didn’t really hurt you tonight, it was some of their other kids. Do you think that was their game plan to make it tougher on you guys?

Hilbert: I think what it was, their top hitters did hurt us in some critical moments like Reagan (Shelton) got the final kill of the match. Summer (Nash) played well in the fifth set, you know the difference was, I think, they served tougher, they took us out of system, we had more errors and got blocked more on our outside hitting than we did in the first two sets. Because we were forced to do that. They did defend, they didn’t in San Diego but they defended better in the last three sets there.

Q: After a run like this, is there anything special left to say or do to be ready for Friday?

Hilbert: We need to do our normal stuff. I’m sure this hurts these guys, they are competitors, they want to win everything that they play but it doesn’t change who we are. We’re 27-1, I would take that any day. We’ve gotta come back, UNLV is better than San Diego State, I don’t know that they’ll play better than San Diego State did tonight but I think they’ve got a couple of players that are difference makers. We’ve gotta prepare for them tomorrow and come out and play well  against them on Friday. We can’t let something like this wound us, I think these guys will play with a good head on their shoulders Friday night.

Q: Do you think this loss takes you out of consideration to host?

Hilbert: Who knows, it probably does in that if we had been undefeated I think they would have had to give us a reason for not letting us but now they don’t need that reason.

Q: I know how disheartening this is because of what this team has been able to accomplish when a lot of people didn’t think you were going to be the team you were coming into tonight. Can you just talk about the feeling you still have for this team despite this loss?

Culbert: We still know our potential, we know what can do. Its not like this one loss is going to define our entire season, we’ve already come out and played and competed every single game and we competed tonight, just not as hard as we should have or as hard as we needed to, to win. But we’re still going to be the same team and come out hard and compete because we are competitors and I think the one loss sucks now but it’ll help us against UNLV and in the tournament.

Q: Even with the season you’ve had, how surprising was that comeback with how good your team has been at closing out matches up to this point?

Hilbert: If you take a look at Set 5, the only bad part of it was that 4 point run they got to start. The rest of the time we played good in Set 5. But so did they, they stayed tough and we had that…I’m not going make a comment on the referee’s call. But I mean we were right there with them, even on the kill that won the set for them , our blockers hit the the assignment and got their hands up and she wiped it off the block. I think we got out blocked starting in the middle of the third set, they had a stretch of like five straight blocks and that was us just being tentative, not driving to balls, and hitting with athleticism which we have to do. Otherwise, people will block you. We’ve got to take good out of system swings or smart out of system swings.

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