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Katie Oleksak uses the court as her canvas

Colorado State sophomore Katie Oleksak (22) sets the ball for fellow teammate Kristie Hillyer (13) during the third set of action against the University of Northern Colorado. The Rams defeated the Bears in three sets, the Rams are now 2-1 on the season. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

Works of art require the delicate and steady hands of a well-trained craftsman in order to discover the magic and bring to life their creation. For Colorado State’s volleyball team, those perfect hands hang on the arms of sophomore setter Katie Oleksak.

“Her hands are beautiful,” Oleksak’s high school coach Amber LeTarte told the Collegian. “She would make moves on the court that can’t be taught.”

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Oleksak’s movement combined with her passing touch immediately caught the eye of CSU head coach Tom Hilbert when recruiting her out of Phoenix, Ariz.

“She is an extremely athletic, very creative setter,” Hilbert said. “When she committed to us I was very excited, not just because she is talented…she is also a leader and a person of character and you want those kind of people in your program.”

Oleksak ultimately picked the Rams over other suitors for a variety of factors, but more than anything it was just a natural feeling.

“It was kind of in my gut, I got a good feeling here based on the crowds, the people, the team, the coaches,” Oleksak said. “Just putting all those factors together, I really liked CSU out of all the schools I was looking at.”

The first dip into volleyball for Oleksak began down in Phoenix where she grew up in the desert heat with a neighbor who played volleyball. She eventually got more into the sport and decided to join a team in fifth grade.

 “My first team, we lost every single game so I was kind of discouraged by that,” Oleksak said. “In seventh grade I picked it up again and I got a really good coach and I became a setter right off the bat.”

The move to become a setter had obvious payoffs as Oleksak is still in that position today. Even then, volleyball was not the only activity going on in her life. Music and the performing arts also played a larger role in Oleksak’s life. 

Oleksak used her hands on the keys of a piano, but could never fully pursue it as volleyball required so much time and was a large financial commitment. Instead of making art on the piano, Oleksak would make beauty on the court of Sunnyslope High School (Arizona) as a four-year varsity starter. She helped lead the Vikings to two state titles in 2013 and 2014 and leave her mark on the program with an impressive sense of leadership.

“She was a leader and had this amazing calmness about her on the court that helped her teammates relax,” LeTarte said. “She gained strength and insight to the game.  She became a better leader vocally through her four years on varsity.”

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Nowadays, Oleksak is at the forefront of a Rams team that is currently ranked No. 25 in the nation and looks to go where the program has never been before: the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament.

Sophomore Katie Oleksak celebrates a huge point with fellow teammates during the match the University of Northern Colorado on August 29, 2017. The Rams are now 2-1 on the season. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

Her skills on the court represent a little bit of everything that the game has to offer. She sets up her teammates beautifully with well-timed and placed passes on a daily basis. She can sneak in a kill when the defense gets caught going through the set-kill motions. She can get back on defense and layout for a dig and can even slide in front of the net to get block with her 5-foot-10 frame.

These skills have been apparent for a long time as her high school coach LeTarte believed that Oleksak was destined for the high levels of college volleyball from the first time she met her.

“I knew Katie would play volleyball in college the minute I saw her in open gyms,” LeTarte said. “She has a natural talent.”

That natural eye is what has helped Oleksak create art in motion on the Moby Arena court on a nightly basis.

Volleyball is a systematic game that has players rotate to different spots and set up defenses that aim to cover the whole floor. Oleksak has learned to analyze this constant change on the court and uses that ability to set her teammates up for success. She even takes advantage of the holes herself by sneaking in kills when she dumps the ball onto the other side. This ability is something that Hilbert reminds her to stay aware of.

“He (Hilbert) loves when I dump when it’s successful,” Oleksak said. “Sometimes I chose to do it at the wrong times and he gets upset. But when it’s successful, it’s really good because it keeps the blockers focused on me.”

Her style of setting is unique and it has become very important to how the team operates as almost every attack goes through Oleksak first.

“She is always in motion and she is deceptive in what she is going to do and she is not afraid to throw a ball, to make a difficult choice,” Hilbert said on what makes Oleksak different from other setters.  

Her uniqueness extends to off the court as Oleksak goes out of her way to make connections with her hitters in order to produce a better piece on the court.

“She is really positive and she listens, that’s what makes a good setter,” teammate Breana Runnels said. “We’re friends off the court, we need to have that bond off the court so that we can play better on the court as well.”

Oleksak builds these bonds by simply making an effort to talk to her teammates and learn anything she can about who they are.

“Connecting off the court really helps you connect on the court,” Oleksak said. “I really try to talk to each player when we travel or ask them questions about their life or their day…you create that trust outside and then once you’re on the court they trust you with setting.”

A commitment to being friends off the court is something that Hilbert believes shows great leadership and says quite a bit about the young sophomore.

“People look at her as a person who is above drama and is good at managing her life,” Hilbert said. “She is trusted and people respect her…she walked in the door and started getting her teammates to trust her and like her and that makes all the difference.”

And Oleksak gives her teammates no option but to like her as she is comfortable to just be herself. This is a characteristic that has been present since high school.

“Off the court, Katie was a blast to be around,” LeTarte said. “I had her in my office all the time. She would make me laugh every day. Katie had no fear in being herself and living out of who she is…when she left I missed her tremendously on the court of course, but also on a daily basis.”

Art will always have critics and people saying what something is worth, but the display being put on at Moby Arena and around the country by Oleksak is worth a thousand words.

Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44.

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