Young but experienced Rams ready to lead team into volleyball opener

Sergio Santistevan

 

Tom Hilbert brings the team together to discuss a play during a drill at practice on Aug. 21. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

The Rams enter the season ranked No. 25 in the country by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, but for the Rams to continue the winning standard they will have to do it without any seniors on the team.

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“Our core group is still here,” redshirt sophomore Kirstie Hillyer said. “I think the team culture is still really good … was good last year and I think that carried on to this year.”

After the graduation of four seniors, CSU heads into their opening weekend with a young but experienced squad led by 2017 Mountain West Player of the Year Katie Oleksak, along with Mountain West All-Conference players Hillyer, Breana Runnels and Paulina Hougaard-Jensen.

“The four returning all-conference players are still playing, now they’ve got to try and make the other people around them better,” said Head Coach Tom Hilbert.

Even with a younger team, the Rams will continue to approach their game the same way.

“We still prepare the same,” Oleksak said. “We have a lot of experienced girls and most of us know what we’re doing out here, so it’s cool to prepare the same way and get in there and get ready.”

Unfortunately for the Rams, they will have to prepare without one of their best players, Olivia Nicholson, when they take on No.12 Illinois on Aug. 24 and UNC-Wilmington on August 25 due to an injury sustained in practice.

“Now, we’re trying to put a different puzzle together and decide who is going to be played where,” said Hilbert. “Olivia (Nicholson) was an all-around player … She played all the way and she was very good at all assets.”

With a lack of depth, Hilbert will look at his young squad to step up and replace Nicholson. Since Nicholson was effective on both sides, Hilbert says he’ll have to replace her with both a front and back row player.

With Hilbert unsure of who will step into the starting lineup in place of Nicholson, he’ll rely on his all-conference players for their leadership this weekend.

Hillyer and Oleksak know they are regarded as leaders on the team, but they expect others to step up as well. 

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“We’re all leaders in our own way,” said Hillyer. “Wherever it’s vocal, leading by example or off the court, and I think that’s what really cool about this team.”

Once the crowd fills up Moby Arena and the whistle blows, Oleksak hopes to give advice to the young Rams that she wishes she would have had.  

“Don’t place so much expectation on yourself in the first games,” said Oleksak. “It’s still just a volleyball game. You’re still playing what you do every day.”

Collegian sports reporter Sergio Santistevan can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @TheRealsSergio.