Rams head to California to take on Michigan in NCAA tournament

Austin White

Volleyball player, Kristie Hillyer, jumps up to spike the ball.
Sophomore Kirstie Hillyer (13) spikes the ball at against UNLV in Moby Arena on Sept 23. (Jenny Lee | Collegian)

Come tournament time, playoff teams in the NCAA volleyball tournament are usually scrambling to find tape and scout their first round opponent. That will not be the case for the No. 23 Colorado State Rams who take on the Michigan Wolverines this Friday, Dec. 1 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Back on Sept. 8, the Rams took care of the Wolverines in a sweep as part of an early-season tournament hosted by CSU. This time, the Rams will not have the orange-out Moby Arena crowd around them as the two will square off in Palo Alto, California in the regional hosted by Stanford.

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“It’s an interesting situation because we did beat them before so we know they are a beatable team but they are going to want revenge,” sophomore Katie Oleksak said. “I’m excited, I think it’s two really evenly matched teams so I think it will be a really great match.”

The Rams were able to sweep the then-ranked No. 16 Wolverines despite missing redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer and the 1.49 blocks per set she adds to the squad.

“She’s really good offensively and she’s really good defensively as a blocker,” Michigan head coach Mark Rosen said about Hillyer. “We certainly have to respect that and be ready, have some plan. But she is one of many on (CSU). In my mind, they are a really loaded team.”

With the top two middle blockers on the Rams hurt early in the year in Hillyer and Alexandra Poletto, the emergence of sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen was needed. The Denmark native stepped up to the challenge all year and broke the all-time CSU record in hitting percentage for a season with her .473 average. She had 11 kills in the Michigan match, along with a solo block and three block assists.

However, head coach Tom Hilbert said that from his experience, the losing team coming into a rematch usually has the upper hand when it comes to preparation.

“I’ve been coaching long enough to know that, you play somebody once and beat them then they have a preparation advantage the second time you play them,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “We have to understand and figure that we’re gonna have to do things differently against them.”

The player that might give the Wolverines that advantage is senior middle blocker Claire Kieffer-Wright. Last time in Fort Collins, the California native had 12 kills against the Rams on a .421 hitting percentage. She is second on the team in kills with 304 and her .324 hitting clip is the best on the team. 

However, Michigan’s offense primarily runs through junior outside hitter Carly Skjodt who has almost double the amount of attack attempts than her next closest teammate. Her 416 kills lead the Wolverines, who finished tied for first in the Big 10 with 1,576 kills. 

“You have to look at like as a new match,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “Both teams have matured since then so we didn’t go back to our match. We just looked at the last five matches of Michigan.”

Michigan’s head coach Rosen, who grew up in Fort Collins, described how his team struggled in pretty much all areas of their loss to the Rams. What stood out the most to Rosen was his team’s struggle on the defensive side.

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“We actually hit a decent number offensively, even though I don’t think we played great offensively, but we couldn’t defend them at all,” Rosen said. “You’re not going to be able to stay in a match with a good team if you can’t play on the defensive side of stuff.”

Sophomore Katie Oleksak celebrates a point with fellow teammates against the University of Northern Colorado on Aug. 29, 2017. (Elliott Jerge | Collegian)

The all-time series between the Rams and Wolverines is 1-2 in favor of Michigan who defeated the Rams in the second round of the NCAA tournament back in 2007. That year, CSU also played Michigan twice, losing to them in the regular season as well as the postseason.

A 1-2 all-time record does not sound as daunting when compared to the 0-11 record the Rams hold against their potential second-round opponent, the Stanford Cardinal. The reigning national champions are the tournament’s No. 3 seed overall.

“We’re not going to talk to the team about what our record is against Colorado State,” Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think the two big keys for the tournament are stay loose and relaxed and then stay in the moment and those two things usually lead to success.”

Anxiety in the Rams will come from trying to figure out how to deal with the Pac 12 Player of the Year in Stanford’s Kathryn Plummer. The sophomore is the Cardinal’s leader on offense with 475 kills and a Pac 12-high 4.70 kills per set.

The Rams counter with their own former Freshman of the Year turned Player of the Year in sophomore Katie Oleksak. She earned the recognition this year by breaking CSU assist records with her 12.02 assists per set, good for fifth best in the nation.

“The first thing you do with a good setter is you try to get her on the run and keep her off the net so she can’t use all of her options,” Hambly said. “There is not much to do to defend a setter. We can defend the hitters she sets so if we can limit their options and make it a little bit easier for us to defend their attacks then that’s what we will do.”

Hambly stated how he is more focused on defeating their first round opponent in California State University, Bakersfield, but did mention the challenge that a balanced offense like CSU will present in their potential matchup.

The first-round matchup against Michigan will begin Friday, Dec. 1 at 5:30 p.m. MT followed by Stanford’s first round match at 7 p.m. MT. If the Rams win, their second round match will start at 7 p.m. MT on Saturday, Dec. 2. Neither match will be on TV or streamed online, but fans can listen in locally on the radio at 90.5 KCSU for both matches.  

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