San Jose State middle star poses unique challenge for CSU volleyball

Luke Zahlmann

Coming off an undefeated four-game road trip, No.21 Colorado State volleyball will be faced with yet another challenging opponent in San Jose State, who currently sits second in the Mountain West Conference.

The Spartans had a four-game road trip of their own to begin conference play, coming out of the stretch 3-1 with their lone loss coming to Nevada. Boasting a second-ranked hitting attack (.235), the Spartans are led by middle blocker Nandyala Gama. The senior leads the entire conference in total kills (240) and ranks sixth in hitting percentage (.335).

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“I definitely want to prove I am a better middle than she is,” Kirstie Hillyer said. “Also, just prove the whole team is better.”

The strength of the Spartans is directly countered by the strength up the middle of the Rams. With three high-caliber middles in Hillyer, Paulina Hougaard-Jensen and Alexandra Poletto, the Rams will be able to rotate in the middle, staying fresh in their blocking efforts.

Despite leading the conference in kills, Gama does not have quite the blocking ability to go with it, falling towards the middle of the pack in blocks per set (0.97). The same problem does not exist for the Rams who have Hillyer (1.54) and Hougaard-Jensen (1.33) at the top of the conference in the same category.

“The problem is (Gama) gets her kills on pins,” coach Tom Hilbert said. “She is not going right at (our middles), she is running around on one foot. The left side blockers are more important on Gama.”

Volleyball player, Jasmine Hanna, leaps midair to spike the ball.
Senior Jasmine Hanna (6) spikes the volleyball into the opposing team’s court at the CSU vs. UNLV volleyball match in Moby Arena on Sept 23. (Jenny Lee | Collegian)

In a game where the Rams will focus on the middle, the Spartans will be tasked with defending each part of the net as the outside hitters of the Rams pose as an identical challenge to the middles with seniors Jasmine Hanna and Sanja Cizmic leading the charge. Boasting leadership and maturity on the outsides, the Rams’ experience level will be a deciding factor on Thursday night.

Hanna, in her last year as a Ram, is approaching history. With six more kills, Hanna will become the program’s all-time leader in kills in the modern scoring era. A feat that was brought to attention at the beginning of the season by her mother, Hanna has displayed dominant consistency throughout the year. Alongside fellow senior Cizmic, Hanna has led the Rams offensive attack while acting as a mentor to redshirt freshman Breana Runnels.

“(Breaking the record) would be super exciting,” Hanna said. “I think it is a great way to cap off my senior year and it has been an awesome ride (at CSU), so I think it is really cool that it is coming in my senior year.”

On a team with a young nucleus, the leadership and maturity that the older players have instilled has become a catalyst for the Rams’ success. Staying focused on the process and not looking ahead to future opponents has led the Rams to be nationally ranked in the top 25 for the majority of the season.

What’s more, the team has compiled a 16-2 record with nary a conference loss. As the Rams push into their final stretch of conference games, the leadership of the older players paired with the lessons of coach Tom Hilbert will be vital.

“(As seniors) we are always calm,” Hanna said. “We are a calming force on the court so I think underclassmen can look to us and see that they do not need to freak out and just need to be calm.”

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As well as being moved to No. 30 in the RPI, the Rams escalated to No. 21 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Michigan, a team the Rams swept earlier in the year, and rival Colorado both dropped out of the top 25. Despite early resistance to moving the Rams in the polls, the nation is beginning to take notice of the dominance put forth and their ranking is indicative of the newfound admiration.

The hard work and resiliency the Rams have shown through an injury-riddled season is rearing its head as they approach full strength down the stretch. Once Hillyer, Poletto and sophomore Olivia Nicholson are all fully healthy, the Rams could continue their national ascent. 

CSU will host the SJSU Thursday at 7 p.m. in Moby Arena. It will serve as the Rams’ first home game in over two weeks and their first of six home games in an eight-game stretch.

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