Rams wreak revenge on Border War rivals, win eighth straight

Luke Zahlmann

Roles were reversed and a Mountain West conference lead was built upon in the second iteration of the Border War, with the hosting Colorado State Rams taking the match in four sets Tuesday night over the University of Wyoming (25-20, 25-19, 16-25, 25-22).

The win brought the Rams’ win streak to eight in the meat of their conference slate, only dropping a total of two sets in the octet of matches. The win also brought the team’s home win total to 11 on the year.

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Exemplified in the first set, the Rams sought retribution for their early season loss to the Cowgirls. Steered by an 11-0 midway through the opening set, the energy of the Rams was unlike much of the two team’s opening meeting.

The streak was the longest of the Rams season, led by the efforts of junior Katie Oleksak at the back line. A pair of service aces and 10 points in all were a result of Oleksak taking her ball placement from the net to the green line of the boundary. The duo of aces came out of a Cowgirls timeout. 

“I always grew up just (knowing) you never miss a serve after a timeout, so I always go in with that mentality,” Oleksak said.

An array of runs did not end there as the Rams rumbled to a 5-0 lead in the second frame as well, the catalyst being a trio of hitting errors from the Cowgirls. 

In all, the match featured 12 separate runs of over four-consecutive volleys, with both squads splitting the total with half-a-dozen each.

“That stretch of matches from San Diego State through Wyoming, I don’t think we played very well. It was a wake-up call for us and we’ve been getting better ever since.” Coach Tom Hilbert

A heightened energy was the story of the match as the Rams found their groove, unlike much of the team’s first meeting. Some of the increase was homebound excitement. 

“I’m glad the second game was at home,” Oleksak said. “We wanted to face them in Moby (Arena) for that second time.” 

The energy was that of a team leading the conference once again. Once picked as the preseason favorite to repeat, the Rams hit a rough patch to start the conference portion of their schedule.

A pair of consecutive conference loses to Fresno State University and the Cowgirls, their first streak of loses in a decade in the MW awakened the Rams’ players and coaching staff alike.

“That stretch of matches from San Diego State through Wyoming, I don’t think we played very well,” Coach Tom Hilbert said. “It was a wake-up call for us and we’ve been getting better ever since.” 

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An anomalous set loss came by way of a Cowgirls’ run in the third and possibly clinching set. The visitors limited the Rams to a mere .061 hitting percentage, their lowest of the contest. The stoppage was led by five Cowgirl blocks, their highest of any frame in the match.

The set was also the only frame in which the Rams did not register a block of their own. 

three players block a ball
Breana Runnels (15), Kirstie Hillyer (13), and Sasha Colombo (7) leap up to bat the ball back down on the Wyoming side. (Devin Cornelius | Collegian

A late run, once again led by Oleksak serving, gave the Rams hope but was thwarted after a Cowgirls timeout. Out of the short break, Oleksak served the ball long, ending the hosts’ comeback attempt in the third.

Yet another run, this time 8-2 in favor of the Rams was the culprit for the clinching fourth set victory. On the spree, the Rams did not tally a single kill at the net, instead relying on a pair of service aces from freshman Sasha Colombo and multiple Cowgirls’ hitting errors.

The runs were not concluded there as the Cowgirls came right back with seven consecutive victorious volleys of their own.

In all, the Rams found a way to avoid a do-or-die fifth set, countering the Cowgirls attack with redshirt sophomore Breana Runnels. The former MW Newcomer of the Year finished with 20 kills on 43 attempts.

“I tend to get a little more serious when the game gets kind of (tight),” Runnels said. “I still try to put out the same energy in my play. Maybe my cheer isn’t as loud as others but I’m still there in the game.”

Distributing for the offense was again was Oleksak who added on to her MW assist lead, registering 44 in the four-set battle.

The Rams will now head down the interstate to the Air Force Academy for their Thursday showdown with the Fighting Falcons. The match tips off at 6:30 p.m.

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