Zahlmann: Power five matchups for CSU volleyball will pay off

Luke Zahlmann

Pegged as one of the hardest out-of-conference schedules in years, coach Tom Hilbert has set up Colorado State volleyball to thrive in the latter half of the year.

With a trio of tournaments and six of the nine teams competing in the Power Five, the Rams have set up a gauntlet of competition in the early going. 

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The scheduling is not completely in the hands of Hilbert due to agreements to play “home and home” matchups, as well as various tournaments. Including TCU and Florida State, each tournament was scheduled in one of three venues, but only TCU remains as a future host.

“I think we probably scheduled too hard,” Hilbert said. “But, it’s not going to hurt us. The only way we get hurt is if we come out of this losing nine (games).”

Those matchups, in which the Rams went 4-2, will give the team a leg up once the conference season begins, with the postseason testing the Rams’ mettle.

In just the first 12 games, the Rams will have faced three top-25 teams, with the University of Illinois at the top at No. 12 when they came to Fort Collins, now up to No. 8 on the season.

In the Illinois match, the Rams actually looked better than the visitors. Outside of the fifth set, the Rams thoroughly outplayed the Illini, out hitting them by percentage, as well as a greater number in service aces.

The problem for the Rams was their service play in general, with the service aces merely covering up that issue. In a game where Hilbert instructed the team to serve aggressively, the Rams made several mistakes. The risk did not pay off for the Rams in front of their largest crowd in team history.

Following the win over the Rams, Illinois has yet to use a match on the year, with the Rams posing as one of only two teams of the Illini first eight games to take the team five sets. A feat that even No. 13 Washington and No. 20 Colorado failed to do.

The Rams won a majority of their games in their largest two tournaments of the year, with a sweep to the No. 20 University of Michigan being the low point. After a year in which the Rams beat the Wolverines twice, they were unable to make it three-in-a-row as the home team used last year’s matchups to motivate them this year. 

Led by juniors Kirstie Hillyer and Katie Oleksak, with the former being a redshirt, along with redshirt sophomore Breana Runnels, the Rams have a deadly attacking lineup. Their lineup of strikers took a hit in the offseason however as they lost seniors Sanja Cizmic and Jasmine Hanna, the latter being the all-time leader in kills for the program.

Stepping up in her wake has been Runnels, though the Rams’ depth has already been tested often this year with several lineup changes to show for it.

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Runnels leads the team with 121 kills through nine matches, with Hillyer directly behind her with 111 of her own. Distributing the ball is Oleksak who leads the Mountain West in assists per set (10.94).

The mark, though best in the conference, is actually a step down from Oleksak’s career averages which are nearly a full assist per set higher than her tally this season. Once the Rams’ hitters are able to develop a better rapport with the 2017 Mountain West Player of the Year, the attack will get even better.

The same goes for the hitting as a whole as the Rams’ mark of .243 in hitting percentage is also sure to rise as the percentages of Runnels (.173) and redshirt junior Jessica Jackson (.172) both figure to rise. Runnels is nearly .060 behind her mark last year in which she led the team with 367 kills, a mark she may surpass this year at her current pace with positive regression intertwined.

With improvement to come in conference play, meshed with the experience gained in high stakes matches in front of large crowds, including the opener against Illinois in which the attendance set a record, the Rams are on their way towards success.

Wins against quality teams will also boost their RPI, a rating that fell just short of being able to host last year, limiting the Rams success in the postseason.

Though the opening schedule has been daunting for CSU volleyball, the method behind the schedule is preparation, something they will have in droves come the postseason this year. 

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