Rams close non-conference play with CU matchup in home tournament

Austin White

The No. 22 Colorado State volleyball team will finish the non-conference portion of their schedule this weekend when they host their second home tournament, highlighted by a match with the University of Colorado.

Colorado (7-1) comes into Fort Collins with their one loss being at a neutral site against No. 2 Penn State Nittany Lions. CU has garnered national attention themselves after receiving 13 points in the latest AVCA coaches poll, their first time this season being mentioned.

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“We are getting ready to play a team (Colorado) that is really as athletic as Michigan is in the middle,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “We need athletes as well as good players, playing against these guys.”

CU looks very similar to CSU (8-1) in that they hit over .300 on offense and hold their opponents to under a .200 mark. Leading the way for the Buffs is junior Naghede Abu who is hitting at .451, which is top 20 in the country. She also has a team-high 39 blocks.

“She is a physical talent,” CU head coach Jesse Mahoney said. “She can play high, she can take a lot of space blocking, she’s a relentless competitor…she’s definitely been a big part of our success so far.”

Overall, the Buffs hit at a .308 mark to rank eighth in the nation in hitting percentage. The Rams rank 18th in the country in blocks per set at 2.89 per frame, but they will be without redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer again this weekend.

The middle blocker is still recovering from a knee injured suffered two weeks ago against Florida State. Hillyer ranks 13th in the nation with 1.59 blocks per set.

Sophomore Katie Oleksak sets volleyball
Sophomore Katie Oleksak sores through the air to set the ball to a teammate during the Sunday September 10, 2017 volleyball game versus Idaho State. (Matt Begeman | Collegian)

In her absence, sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen has stepped up in the middle blocking position by averaging 1.39 blocks per set, the second best average in the Mountain West. Thanks to her play last weekend, Hougaard-Jensen earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors.

The Denmark native has also grown on the offensive side of the ball with the nation’s 12th best hitting percentage of .468. Her improvement in hitting can be attributed to her better slide hits according to setter Katie Oleksak.

The Buffs are also solid on defense, ranking in the top 50 nationally with 2.55 blocks per set. The Rams however, rank sixth in the nation in hitting percentage at .315 and will look to find the holes in the Buffs’ defense.

Senior Sanja Cizmic was named the AVCA Player of the Week after her dominate performance last weekend in which she averaged a .415 hitting mark during the tournament hosted by CSU. She was also named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week and earned the MVP title for the tournament.

On the season, Cizmic has battled through abdominal and ankle injuries to record 75 kills on a .299 hitting percentage for the Rams and looks as if she is finally fully healthy.

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Cizmic and fellow outside hitters Breana Runnels and Jasmine Hanna will need to continue their strong offensive stretch as well in order for the Rams to break through the Buffs’ block. Runnels and Hanna are the top two Rams in kills with 112 and 88 kills, respectively.

The outside hitters have already been leaned on heavily this year after Hillyer’s injury and senior Alexandra Poletto missing every game except the match against Michigan. Senior defensive specialist McKenna Thornlow also missed last week due to a concussion, but will be back on the court this weekend.

The team as a whole has had to make many adjustments throughout the season because of their lack of health, something Oleksak feels like they are always prepared for.

Senior Jasmine Hanna celebrates her block with fellow teammates during the season opener against Duke on August 25, 2017. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

“We’ll put in a lot of different scenarios,” Oleksak said on how the team prepares with injuries. “Tom (Hilbert) is really good at mixing it up so that if something does happen we know how to mix it up in a game and we don’t freak out.”

2016 was the first year Mahoney was at the helm of CU, someone who Hilbert is no stranger to. The Buffs coach spent seven seasons coaching under Hilbert at CSU before moving on to be the head coach at the University of Denver in 2012. Last year was the first time that Mahoney was able to top Hilbert in a regular season matchup.

“I think we both understand what we are trying to do system wise,” Mahoney said. “(Hilbert) is one of the most successful volleyball coaches out there…I certainly have done it in the past when I was at the University of Denver, reach out and ask his advice because I think he has seen and done it all.”

Before the Buffs, the Rams will start the weekend squaring off with Albany University on Friday at 7 p.m. The Great Danes (0-9) have not been that great this year as they are winless and have only won two sets total all season.

As a team, they hit at a .119 clip while allowing opponents to hit at .282 and all three of their main attackers are below .210. Redshirt sophomore Akuabata Okenwa leads the team in kills with 96 and has the best hit percentage of the main attackers, a .206 percentage.

CSU will continue on Saturday afternoon when they welcome the Xavier Musketeers into Moby Arena at 1 p.m. Xaiver (4-6) struggles offensively as seen by a team .181 hit percentage, but they do allow opponents to hit just .191 against them.

Albany will be up first for the Rams at 7 p.m. Friday before facing Xavier at 1 p.m. Saturday. The weekend will end Saturday night with the matchup against CU serving as the Rams “Green Out” game and starting at 7 p.m.

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