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Rams block their way to another conference sweep

Colorado State Volleyball Head Coach Tom Hilbert talks to his team after the match on August 29, 2017 against the University of Northern Colorado. The Rams defeated the Bears in three sets. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

A successful trip down I-25 kept No. 24 Colorado State volleyball undefeated in conference play as they swept Air Force on Saturday afternoon (25-21, 25-19, 25-19).

With a target on their back, the Rams continued their domination over the Air Force Academy, a matchup that has favored the Rams heavily. In a season that has seen the Rams go 4-0 to this point in conference, the Falcons have been held without a win and continue to fall in the conference standings.

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Jumping out to a large lead in the first set, the Rams allowed the Falcons to get back in the set wth a 5-0 run that put them up 11-10. Despite the setback, the Rams cruised to win the set on a kill by Jasmine Hanna. The first set would wind up being the least competitive of the sets, and the Rams were pushed constantly by the Falcons defensive pressure.

Throughout the match, Katie Oleksak spread the ball around and allowed multiple hitters to get involved. Even with Breana Runnels struggling, the Rams were still able to attack the middle of the Falcons defense and allow Paulina Hougaard-Jensen and Kirstie Hillyer to find their groove. The two middles rotated often with Alexandra Poletto sitting out the first two sets. The Rams took advantage of their distinct height mismatch on both sides of the ball.

“We thought we had a good matchup,” coach Tom Hilbert said. “We (also) thought we had a good matchup with the slides, but I thought they did a pretty good job of handling our slides. We were not in system as much as I wanted to be and (Air Force) did a good job defensively on our outside hitters.”

The middles of the Rams worked double duty as they also led the Rams to 11 total blocks. The blocking display paid off as the Falcons were only able to muster a .058 hitting percentage in the match, including a lowly .143 for the Falcons leading hitter, Abigail Miksch. Despite a total of 21 attempts, Miksch was unable to develop a rhythm or make an impact in the match. Miksch landed awkwardly in the second set and the Falcons were forced to run their offense through Denise Ssozi who was unable to find any more success than her teammate in her 32 attempts (-.156).

“(Miksch) was a focus of ours,” Hilbert said. “But we let (Cambria Galloway) go and she had a great match so that is the price you pay sometimes.”

Air Force pushed the Rams constantly in each set, despite the large margin in scoring. The Falcons forced many long volleys, and were able to dig up nearly every Runnels attempt. Coming into the match, the Rams knew they had a dog fight on their hands as they do every time they play the Falcons and showed their resiliency despite losing almost every long rally.

Emphasizing ball movement through Oleksak is a normal routine for the Rams, and it was on full display in Colorado Springs. Six hitters for the Rams were able to register multiple kills, and five were given double-digit opportunities.

“Coach (Hilbert) really got everyone in on practice,” Oleksak said. “We were really working on the middles and who would start so that was really competitive. When we came out, we mixed up the middles again and I think that helped.”

The Rams will head into their showdown with their biggest conference foe, Boise State, with a renewed confidence following wins in every match since their hard-fought loss to the University of Colorado. Among the many lessons learned to this point in the conference schedule, the Rams will look to count down on their errors that allow opponents to hang around, a lethal combination when facing a team like the Broncos.

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“We had 11 errors,” Sanja Cizmic said. “I think that was our biggest problem in the match. That is why we did not get as many blocks as we wanted.”

The Rams will travel to Boise for their match Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Boise State is currently tied with the Rams at 4-0 atop the standings. Given the disparity of talent in the conference, the game could go a long way in deciding the regular season champion.

Collegian sports reporter Luke Zahlmann can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.

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