CSU volleyball remains perfect in conference despite scare from New Mexico

Austin White

No deficit has been too much for the No. 20 Colorado State Rams.

They proved this Saturday with their third three-set comeback win of the year against the New Mexico Lobos (21-25, 24-26, 25-17, 25-16, 15-11). The win preserves the Rams’ perfect record in conference play. They picked up the win despite a season high of 17 service errors.

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Throughout the first set, the Rams (20-2, 10-0 MW) were their own worst enemy by negating any kind of momentum they tried to harness. Several times, the Rams made service mistakes after a side out against the Lobos with six errors coming in the set. Sophomore libero Amanda Young also had two receiving errors to help out the Lobos’ service game.

“You’re not going to beat anybody good if you’re (making many mistakes in the service game),” head coach Tom Hilbert said.

Improvement came in the second set with the Rams holding a late 23-19 lead. But a timeout by UNM gave time for the service mistakes to creep back into the arms of the Rams.

Senior McKenna Thornlow put one into the net out of the timeout for one of her team-leading five service errors. Then, with the Rams holding set point, Young’s service error started a 4-0 run for UNM as the Lobos ran to the 26-24 set victory.

For the third time this season, the Rams had fallen down 2-0 in a match. The first two times ended with victories for the Rams who came back against TCU and Boise State earlier in the year.

Make that three.

CSU cut down on the service errors for the remaining sets and were able to get big contributions from their young core.

First up was redshirt freshman Breana Runnels who picked up 11 of her team leading 20 kills in the final three frames. She finished hitting at a .306 mark and also contributed five blocks, including one solo.

“(Runnels) had a very, very solid match,” Hilbert said. “I was really pleased the way she played, the way she competed. She took big swings when we needed it.”

Sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen carried her hot hand over from UNLV Thursday into Albuquerque by picking up a career-high 12 kills. The Denmark native was big on defense at the net as well with six blocks, good for second most for the Rams.

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The difference for the Rams in the final three sets was their ability to start quick and maintain the lead. Hougaard-Jensen has been a model of consistency all year and proved it again by having no attacking errors in the match to help the Rams cut down on 13 attacking errors they had after the first two sets.

“(Hougaard-Jensen) was solid,” Hilbert said. “It was a quiet performance tonight. She was playing in the M2, and Katie (Oleksak) picks perfect times to set her when she has good opportunities.”

Blocking was consistent for the Rams who finished with 15 for the match. Redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer had eight to lead the Rams who had three as a team in each of the final three frames.

UNM hit many attacks to the right side which called for senior Sanja Cizmic and sophomore Katie Oleksak to make crucial digs. The two led the team in digs with 14 and 12, respectively. Both players also had double-doubles with Cizmic picking up 11 kills and Oleksak with 58 assists.

Lauren Twitty of UNM played well against the Rams earlier in the year and did so again Saturday afternoon with 19 kills off a .306 hitting clip. The Lobos finished at a .205 hitting mark, which is well above the .167 the Rams normally give up.

“You want to block players like Lauren Twitty a little better than we did because she hit very, very well for them,” Hilbert said. “The shots she’s hitting are going between our blockers. We need to be able to close that up.”

A win is a win though, according to Hilbert who expressed he was happy to walk away from the match with the victory. He commonly talks about his team needing wins they can put into a memory bank so they can draw on them later when they might find themselves down in another conference match or even a playoff game.

“They knew they were the better team; we knew we weren’t playing our best,” Hilbert said. “They played with great…real maturity.”

After a loss by the Wyoming Cowgirls, the Rams now lead the conference by three games with eight matches left. CSU will have a quick turnaround this week as the second-place Cowgirls come to Moby Arena Tuesday with the match set to begin at 7 p.m.

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