CSU volleyball comes out strong in Michigan but falls late to the host

Sergio Santistevan

In what was set to be the second-toughest tournament of the season, Colorado State volleyball played to a 2-1 record at the Michigan Challenge.

players huddle together
The Rams huddle for a pep talk between plays during the game against Florida State. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

The Rams opened the tournament sweeping Southeastern Conference foe Louisiana State University (LSU) in three tightly-contested sets (25-23, 25-22, 25-23).

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In the opening set, LSU jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead, but the Rams eventually tied the match up at 12. The entire set feature plenty of back-and-forth action with seven lead changes and 14 ties. CSU scored the final three points of the set for the first set win.

The second set was more of the same, but CSU gained the lead at 13-12 and never surrendered it from there.

Looking for the sweep in the third set, CSU built upon their early lead and never looked back. Despite an LSU comeback, the Rams captured the set victory and the sweep to begin the weekend on a high note.

“To be honest, I am not happy the way we played today,” coach Tom Hilbert said. “We’re giving away a bunch of points and luckily today we played a team that gave away more points than we did.”

In the second matchup of the night, the Rams defeated Oakland University in what amounted to four sets (14-25, 25-15, 25-16, 25-17).

CSU came out with a different starting lineup than usual and the Golden Grizzlies took advantage of it. Oakland built a big lead as the Rams tried to figure things out in the early going of set one. Oakland jumped out to a 17-8 lead before taking the opening set 25-14, putting the Rams in comeback mode from the start. 

Fortunately for the Rams, they returned to normal, hitting a highly-efficient .438 percentage after returning to their normal lineup as CSU coasted to a 25-15 set victory.

The next two sets were the most competitive of the matchup as CSU prevailed in both despite the adversity to earn their second victory in the tournament.

Reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, junior Katie Oleksak, recorded 45 assists and 10 digs to earn her first double-double of the season and freshman Jessica Jackson had a career-high 12 kills in the matchup. Mainly in the background behind star Breana Runnels, Jackson has shown several flashes in her playing time, dating back to last season when she succeeded in limited playing time as well. 

a volleyball player sets the ball
junior Katie Oleksak sets the ball for senior Kirstie Hillyer during the home opener against Illinois. The Rams lost the game in the fifth set. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

In the final game of the Michigan Challenge, the Rams met a familiar opponent.

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CSU defeated the University of Michigan twice last season, with one win coming in the NCAA tournament. The Rams could not make it three-in-a-row over No. 20 Michigan and were swept by the host team (21-25, 23-25, 18-25).

CSU gave Michigan all they could handle in the first two sets with both teams exchanging points, but Michigan’s late-game offense proved too be too much.

The Rams were dominated most of the third set and never shrunk the lead to less than four. Michigan recorded seven aces, all by Michigan freshman Paige Jones, and controlled the net, out-blocking the Rams 11-6.

Hilbert gave credit to his team for playing well and was impressed by the play of Michigan and Jones.

“I thought some good things came from the match from an offensive standpoint,” Hilbert said.  “We did not defend great against Michigan, we blocked some of the stuff, but we couldn’t stop number one (Jones).”

CSU will look to recover in their final weekend before they start conference play.

CSU will host Indiana State at Moby Arena on September 14 before heading to Boulder, Colorado on September 15 to face both Portland State and the University of Colorado.

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