Riddled by injury, CSU volleyball defying the odds

Luke Zahlmann

Despite slowly turning into a walking training room, the Colorado State volleyball team refuses to fold.

Looking at the most updated standings for the Mountain West Conference or the national polls, a casual fan would think the Rams are peaking. To the contrary, the team has dealt with several injuries that have made the ceiling a thing of mystery. Even with the overwhelming success the team has experienced, the upper echelon of their potential is even higher.

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At various points of the season, the Rams have been without Alexandra Poletto, Kirstie Hillyer, McKenna Thornlow and Sanja Cizmic, three of which are seniors. The unprecedented amount of injuries for the team has tested the merit of each coach and player from top to bottom.

The catalysts for the Rams in overcoming the hand they have been dealt have been sophomores Katie Oleksak and Paulina Hougaard-Jensen. Versatility and availability have been the name of the game for Hougaard-Jensen who has shown the ability to succeed at a high level on both sides of the ball.

Sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen sends a ball over the net during the third set against the University of Michigan on Sept 8. The Rams defeated the Wolverines in three sets. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

“(Hougaard-Jensen) makes things happen even in bad situations,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “If she does get hot, and Katie is really setting her well, she can go off.”

During the tournament that CSU hosted last weekend, Hougaard-Jensen caught fire and hit .555 on 54 total attempts with 30 kills overall. Sanja Cizmic took home the MW Offensive Player of the Week Award, but a case was made by Hougaard-Jensen to sweep the awards herself. Instead, she took home Defensive Player of the Week with her 16 blocks on the weekend.

Hougaard-Jensen has taken over the middle for the Rams and filled a hole that has become significant due to the plethora of injuries. Starting from the offseason, Hougaard-Jensen has worked to improve and prepare for the moment that would come this year when she would be thrust into action and leaned upon to continue the middle dominance of Rams volleyball.

“I’ve improved my slide hitting,” Hougaard-Jensen said. “I played with national team at home, and I did not really hit the slides. So I came here prepared to be the M2, but then (Hillyer) got hurt and I did not really have an option, but I have improved (slide hitting).”

Being asked to do things that they’re not entirely comfortable with has been the story of the team’s perseverance this season. Multiple players have been thrust into roles that seemed foreign to them coming into the season. Although pushed out of their comfort zone, these players have thrived.

The glue throughout the entire endeavor for the Rams has been setter Katie Oleksak. Residing at the top of the MW in assists (402), Oleksak has led a hard-hitting offense for the Rams that feeds off of the precision of her sets. Oleksak has also had to overcome adversity by developing a rapport with each and every hitter thrust into action. Transforming her game to fit teammates on the fly has allowed her to consistently lead the Rams to wins, and the highest hitting percentage in the conference (.315).

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Sophomore setter Katie Oleksak jump sets the ball for sophomore middle blocker Kirstie Hillyer to hit against Duke on August 25. The rams lost the home opener after a hard fought five sets. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

“I have just had to trust (my teammates’) capability to come out and play,” Oleksak said. “Olivia is a well-rounded player so I have just had to trust that she knows volleyball and may not be a middle but she knows how to play. Or Paulina who may have not hit a lot of slides before, but she is in there to hit slides so I can trust that she is going to get the job done.”

Trust and maturity have been terms commonly used by players and the coaching staff for the Rams to describe their success. Coach Hilbert stressed the immense level of maturity within the team following their win over No. 16 Michigan, and the fun the team is playing with despite less than ideal circumstances.

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Hosting its second tournament in as many weeks, the Rams will be without Hillyer. Poletto, who is still gradually coming back from offseason surgery, may be unavailable as well. Thornlow and Cizmic are up to full speed and ready to instill senior leadership into the team along with fellow leader Jasmine Hanna.

The Rams tournament games begin Friday night against Albany, and features another game against Xavier before their showdown with the University of Colorado on Saturday night. A roller coaster season has introduced a new level of fight in the team that they will look to impose in hopes of back-to-back weekends with tournament titles.

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