Multiple lineup changes cause adjustment period for CSU volleyball

Luke Zahlmann

Last season, the Colorado State volleyball team had Jasmine Hanna, Sanja Cizmic and Alexandra Poletto to look to. This year, they have had to adjust.

The Rams began the season with a lineup void of injuries. Redshirt sophomore Breana Runnels, redshirt junior Kirstie Hillyer and junior Paulina Hougaard-Jensen were set to lead the offensive attack.

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Juniors Amanda Young and Olivia Nicholson were poised to lead the defense, the former in the role of libero, the latter as a specialist with attacking abilities as a hitter as well. Sophomore Maddi Foutz, one of CSU’s best defensive specialists, was prepared to fill any role needed.

Shortly into the season, an injury took a toll on the roster after Young was hindered in the conclusion of the team’s second match of the year against the University of North Carolina-Wilmington Aug. 25. As the starting libero last year and this year, Young’s loss has created a rift in the team’s plans.

In response, CSU cast Foutz in the role of libero. The former Bayfield High School Wolverine shined in her first match against the University of Northern Colorado Aug 28.

Foutz posted 25 digs, the second most in program history in a three-set match, just behind former CSU libero Izzy Gaulia in 2011 (26). Just two matches later, Foutz once again registered a high total (23), this time against Florida State University Sept. 1.

Sophomore, Amanda Young dives for a dig against UW during the CSU vs. UW volleyball game. CSU swept UW three sets to none on Sept 26. (Joshua Contreras | Collegian)

Young returned during CSU’s trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a short three-game tournament Sept 8. In her first game back at libero against Oakland University, she tallied 22 digs of her own. 

Now, the team is led on defense by Nicholson. A “swiss army knife” according to many in the program, the former outside hitter has succeeded in her new role. Though she has yet to rack up the digs like her predecessors, Nicholson has added a new element to their attack.

“Olivia (Nicholson’s) second contact is probably one of the best things about her (at libero),” Coach Tom Hilbert said. “It gives Katie (Oleksak) more freedom to play defense. But it took a hitter out of our lineup.”

The loss of Nicholson as a hitter, along with the graduation of Hanna, Cizmic and Poletto have placed the onus on junior setter Katie Oleksak to overcome.

The graduation of Hanna, the program’s all-time leader in kills, has loomed large but Runnels and Hougaard-Jensen pose a newfound threat following last year’s performances. 

Runnels led the team in kills (367) while Hougaard-Jensen tallied the second-highest hitting percentage in the nation (.474). This year, their results have been difficult to duplicate.

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“The other teams are doing a really good job of scouting and watching our film. (They’re) really reading our shots and knowing our body language. This year it’s been about hitting smarter.”Breana Runnels, redshirt sophomore

Other teams have been making adjustments to their game plan in response to the Rams’ success due to an abundance of data available to each team in the conference and beyond.

“There’s so much information out there, easily-accessible information,” Hilbert said. “We get every match. I can go (look) up Sabryn Roberts on Boise State for example and find every one of her shots, all year long so far, in a minute.”

CSU has been forced to tinker their tactics, relying on Oleksak to be a pillar of consistency. After winning the 2017 Mountain West Player of the Year, the Pheonix, Arizona native has grown accustomed to the pressure.

Whether it is adjusting to new freshmen hitters Sasha Colombo and Jacqi Van Liefde or working to disguise her own net-side actions, Oleksak has grown weary of complacency.

“I’m getting a better feel as the year goes on,” Oleksak said. “(The hardest part) is just knowing how each person wants the ball and how they hit most successfully. (It’s difficult) matching (their) tempos consistently.”

The third-year starter is already at the top of the Mountain West in assists per set (11.17). The average comes just a year after leading the conference in the same stat and leading in total assists when the year concluded (1385).

Other players are struggling to adapt to the changes. The hitters of the team have yet to fully adjust to their more precise attacking.

As a team, CSU is hitting to a .247 percentage, nearly 70 percentage points lower than last year’s .316. The biggest decline has come to a leader in the middle, Hougaard-Jensen. A year after a silver-place finish in the NCAA standings last year, she has fallen to a still-respectable .328. 

The team has shown flashes of conference-champion hitting force though. Against San Jose State University Sept. 22, CSU nailed down a season-high .398 percentage, only rivaled by their performance against Indiana State University Sept. 14 (.375). 

Sophomore Paulina Hougaard-Jensen spikes a ball against Fresno Wednesday night. Photo by Olive Ancell | Collegian

Both matches were sweeps.

When The Rams’ attack has matched the level of consistency that Oleksak has shown since her freshman year, wins have accumulated. Their goal is to recreate a similar attacking force to years past. Another NCAA tournament appearance under Hilbert is dependent on it.

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