Stanford blocks CSU volleyball from third round of NCAA tournament

Austin White

The CSU volleyball team huddles up prior to the game against Fresno State. (Olive Ancell | Collegian

PALO ALTO, California – The season for the No. 23 Colorado State Rams came to a sudden conclusion Saturday night, much like many of their attacks did against the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal. The Rams hit only .085 against the Cardinal and were blocked 16 times in their 14-25, 15-25, 9-25 loss.

Stanford led the entire match with CSU not grabbing a lead or even a tie at any point in the dominant three-set sweep. The loss marks the first time CSU has been swept all year and it is the first time they lost a match after dropping the first two sets.

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The physical prowess of Stanford proved to be too much for the Rams as the Cardinal featured four players over 6-foot-4 inches tall. Kirstie Hillyer was the only Ram of that stature to see playing time.

“I just told (the team), I said, ‘These guys come from a much taller genetic pool than we do,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “They blocked us 16 times, what did we get, two? That is going to disrupt any team.”

That height advantage also exploited the Rams on defense who were held without a block in the first two sets and finished with only two, one of them being in the third with the score 24-8 in favor of Stanford.

An area where CSU is not normally dominated is service points and Stanford changed that by grabbing eight service aces to give them 24 points just between blocks and serves.

“When you talk about getting 24 points in those two categories, that doesn’t happen to us that often,” Hilbert said. “I’d love to come out and play these guys again tomorrow just for the benefit of us getting better, but that’s a team that may win a national championship.”

CSU’s senior outside hitters Jasmine Hanna and Sanja Cizmic led the way for the Rams on Friday by putting up a combined 22 kills and only two errors against the Michigan Wolverines. That performance could not be repeated against Stanford as the duo combined for four kills and eight errors.

“It was not something that we haven’t seen, we’ve had male practice players come in and we have seen this before,” Hanna said on Stanford’s height. “I just don’t think that we were getting the ball in places where we had vision or had the opportunity to show our arms, but that’s what happens when you play a good serving team.”  

Hillyer being the only Ram who could match Stanford’s physical size played well to the tune of a team-high nine kills on a .286 hitting clip. She connected with Hanna on the Rams’ lone blocks in the match. CSU also had only three unforced attacking errors in the match which Hilbert believes showed quite a bit of maturity.

Being the reigning national champions, Stanford proved why they are again a favorite with a lineup that features four starting sophomores who all started last year as freshmen on their title run. The younger lineup from the Rams showed their immaturity with early communication errors.

“There were obviously some nerves, but I think we just kind of went into it like we had nothing to lose,” sophomore Katie Oleksak said. “When we were out there you could see the nerves were kinda getting to us with miscommunications.”

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The loss marks the end of the five CSU seniors’ careers in Hanna, Cizmic, Alexandra Poletto, McKenna Thornlow and Mariah Green. Hanna finishes as the all-time modern era kills leader for CSU alongside her Croatia native outside hitter in Cizmic.

“It’s hard to see all five of these seniors go,” Hilbert said. “This year has been memorable because of those kids. I’m sad to see them go but you have to move on.”

Moving on will not be easy for the Rams, but playing a tough opponent on the road in the brightest lights is what the Rams believe they needed as they will have no seniors next year and will put out a lineup full of experienced juniors.

“These games are always a learning experience,” Oleksak said. “I think just learn to stay composed and focused like they were…I think if we play big like that and swing high we’ll be more successful next year.”

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