Rams sweep the Spartans in home-opener of their Mountain West schedule

Luke Zahlmann

Adorned in orange, Colorado State University volleyball did their part on Ag Day, sweeping conference foe San Jose State University in the home-opener of their conference schedule (25-15, 25-16, 26-24).

Outside of an attack error by redshirt sophomore Breana Runnels in the opening volley, the Rams dominated the Spartans early. Following the opening point by the visitors, the Rams rattled off five consecutive points, two by way of Runnels’ kills.

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Runnels added two more to her total in the first set as the Rams cruised to an opening-set victory. The Rams hit .462 as a team in the first set, a sign of things to come for the conference’s preseason favorite to repeat as champions.

“Our kill percentage was nice and high, I was very pleased with us offensively,” Coach Tom Hilbert said. “And I was very pleased with us blocking.”

After being a thorn in the side of the Rams last season, the Spartans stood as a much softer challenge this year following the loss of their leading hitter in Nandyala Gama. The former SJSU middle racked up 24 kills in the teams’ pair of meetings last season and a team-leading 357 in the seasons’ entirety.

The Spartans were not without leadership in their attacking as their second-leading hitter from last year, redshirt junior Fernanda Vido returned for her fourth year.

“We know she’s their most set player,” Hilbert said. “We took away a lot of her back row game today which is a big thing she does. That was an important part of our game plan.”

The 5-foot-10-inch outside hitter was unable to find production against the Rams’ front, garnering only nine kills despite a team-leading 33 chances.

As a team, the Rams’ defense limited the Spartans’ attack to a combined .116 hitting percentage. Junior Paulina Hougaard-Jensen led the Rams’ blocking force with a team-high five rejections.

Defensive prowess for the Rams came despite the continued absence of their starting libero, junior Amanda Young. In her absence, fellow junior Olivia Nicholson stepped up for the Rams, tallying a team-leading 14 digs.

“(Libero) is a new role for me,” Nicholson said. “It’s fun, it’s new, it’s fresh, but I know that my job is pretty important so in practice, for second balls when Katie (Oleksak) digs, I know I need to improve.”

Normally dominating the attacks, Runnels only killed 14 balls in the match as the Rams went with a spread-out effort. Eight Rams registered a kill in the match, with freshman Jacqi Van Liefde contributing the set-clinching kill in the opening set.

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“I want my teammates to also play well,” Runnels said. “I will be patient, it’s not important that I get the kills, it’s important that we play as a team.”

After coasting through the first two sets, the Rams were met with obstruction in the third set as the two teams traded leads for much of the set.

After jumping out to an 11-6 lead, the Spartans stormed back behind a pair of kills from junior Thaliana Grajeda. With their attacking force finding a rhythm, the visitors came back to knot the score at 13 apiece, forcing a CSU timeout.

Coming out of the break, the Rams jockeyed for position with the Spartans, exchanging leads until they were on the verge of dropping the third set with the Spartans leading 24-23. The second and final timeout from Hilbert allowed the Rams to rally, scoring three straight to clinch the match, with a pair of Runnels’ kills as the conclusion. 

The third set brought back memories of the Spartans’ team that has split the season series with the Rams in consecutive years.

Heading into their road weekend on the west coast, the Rams will carry a 10-4 record and a two-match win streak to begin conference play. The Rams begin their trip with a Sept. 27 match against San Diego State University at 7 a.m. Following the matinee matchup, the Rams head to Fresno State University. 

The last time either of their two upcoming opponents upset the Rams was 2013. 

Collegian Sports Director Luke Zahlmann can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @lukezahlmann.