Rams remain perfect on the road behind Oleksak’s record-breaking performance

Austin White

No howling came from Nevada Thursday night as the No. 19 Colorado State Rams swept the Wolfpack in Reno, Nevada (25-21, 25-20, 25-23). The sweep is the Mountain West champion Rams’ 12th of conference play and puts them at a perfect 8-0 on the road this season.

Katie Oleksak serves ball into air for teammate
Sophomore Katie Oleksak sets up a hit for a teammate during the CSU vs. Woming volleyball game on Oct 24. (Joshua Contreras | Collegian)

The Rams’ sophomore setter Katie Oleksak played nearly perfect as well, breaking the modern scoring program record for assists in a three-set match with 48. She also owns the Rams’ record in a four-set match (59) and a five-set match (71) from her freshman year last season.

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“She makes our team,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “We pull plays out of our hats sometimes because she’s just so dynamic…when you look at our team’s distribution tonight, that’s Katie Oleksak…she keeps the attempts of the attackers pretty even and that’s really good.”

With a spot in the NCAA tournament already clinched, the Rams (25-2, 15-0 MW) now shift focus to themselves, head coach Tom Hilbert described a couple weeks ago. In his 21st year at CSU, Hilbert makes a plan for what the team will focus on with each match prior to the game. For the Wolfpack, it was to get better at serving and passing.

“We have been putting a big emphasis on serving and passing and I don’t think we did a very good job with that tonight,” Hilbert said. “But we still competed and won and that’s what’s important.”

Nevada (9-18, 7-9 MW) hung around in the first two sets and forced timeouts from the Rams in both frames. The Rams started sophomore Olivia Nicholson in place of the injured senior Sanja Cizmic and she struggled passing early, as Hilbert described.

The passing woes of the Rams allowed the Wolfpack to block well in the first set by picking up four stops before the Rams’ timeout at a 13-13 tie. Nevada finished with five blocks in the first set, which is how many they had in their three-set loss to the Rams earlier this season.

The two teams tied it again at 14, but CSU took control by having only one more attacking error after putting up eight prior to their timeout.

The second set featured an earlier 5-0 run by the Wolfpack to go up 7-5 that was aided by two Rams’ errors in the serve-receive game. CSU responded with a 4-0 run themselves and ended up coasting to a second set win behind six kills from Runnels in the set.

Still, the Wolfpack did not give up and actually led for most of the third set before the Rams took their first lead of the frame at 24-23. Sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen carried the team with seven kills in the set to finish with a new career-high of 14 kills.

Last week, Hilbert described how he switched Hougaard-Jensen with redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer, making the Denmark native the M1. Hillyer finished with 11 kills herself and her .450 hitting mark was the second best on the team, only trailing the .550 clip from Hougaard-Jensen.

“There has not been a team that can stay with Paulina (Hougaard-Jensen), so really (the switch has) been fantastic,” Hilbert said. “She deserves to get into that spot where she’s getting a lot more balls because she’s been playing really well.”

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Being out blocked 10-5 by the Wolfpack stands out, however, as it is only the fifth time that has happened this season for the Rams, who are the Mountain West leaders in blocks per set. CSU still held a 3-1 record in those matches, though.

“(Nevada) was locked in to what we were doing, they obviously watched a lot of film and knew where we were going,” Hilbert said. “We didn’t block the ball particularly well. We stopped some stuff, but they were doing a great job covering, they were hitting smart enough to not get blocked.”

CSU will now travel to take on the San Jose State Spartans Saturday, another team they have swept already this year at Moby Arena. The match is set to begin at 3 p.m. MT.

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