Top-5 Mountain West volleyball teams prep for final games

Luke Zahlmann

With a little less than a month to go in the Mountain West volleyball season, the contenders are beginning to sort themselves out. With the top three teams all within three games, the conference schedule in the season’s final days will pose several pivotal matchups. 

Colorado State volleyball has won or split eight of the last nine conference championships, making the tournament in each of Coach Tom Hilbert’s 21 seasons at the helm. 

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After multiple graduations, the Rams are fighting for another championship as the year draws to a close. Sitting at second in the conference, the team has a matchup with each of the four other teams in the top-five of the conference standings, with three of the four contests in Moby Arena. 

Here is how the rest of the Mountain West has fared thus far: 

Fresno State University (16-6, 8-1)

RPI: No. 95

Key Wins: Colorado State (3-1), Wyoming (3-0), UNLV (3-1)

Key Players: Taylor Stover, Madelyn Halterman, Halie Watson 

Led by senior outside hitter Taylor Stover, the Bulldogs have enjoyed their best start since 2003 where they began the year 21-6. In their first four games against the teams directly below them in the standings, the Bulldogs have started 3-1, with the only loss coming on the road in Boise, Idaho. 

With seven seniors, the Bulldogs possess one of the oldest teams in the conference with exactly half of their roster graduating at the conclusion of the 2018 season.

At the forefront of their offensive charge, Stover has accrued 310 kills. In her final year, she has led the Bulldogs to the second-best kills per set in the conference (13.13). In the middle, fellow senior Halie Watson has hit to a .344 percentage, good for fourth in the conference. 

Playing the role of facilitator for the Bulldogs is junior Madelyn Halterman who is the only setter in the conference within 100 assists of leader Katie Olesak of the Rams. Her total of 834 is already the most of any season in her career, besting her freshman year total of 823 with nine games still remaining in the regular season for the team. 

The Bulldogs are second in both assists per set and kills per set. The team also boasts a pair of players in the top-10 for hitting percentage and aces per set. 

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With a rank barely in the top 100, the Bulldogs have faced and defeated the lowest level of competition this year of the top three in the conference, signaling a conference championship being a requirement to make the postseason. Winning each of the remaining matchups against the four other teams in the top five would nearly lock them into a title. 

Colorado State University (16-6, 8-2)

RPI: No. 51

Key Wins: Florida State (3-2), Lousiana State (3-0), Boise State (3-0) 

Key Players: Katie Oleksak, Breana Runnels, Kirstie Hillyer

With the aforementioned graduations of key players such as Jasmine Hanna and Sanja Cizmic, the Rams have been forced to adjust thus far. Last year’s MW Newcomer of the Year and kills-leader, redshirt sophomore Breana Runnels did return for the team though. Through the first 22 games of the year, Runnels leads the Rams with 305 kills.

Distributing the ball for the team is last year’s MW Player of the Year, junior Katie Oleksak. The third-year setter leads not only the team but the entire conference in assists (898). Oleksak has continued the trend of leading setters in the conference, with four of the top-five all-time assists leaders for a year in MW history playing under Hilbert.

The Rams also boast two top-five blockers by set averages in the conference in redshirt junior Kirstie Hillyer and junior Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, both from the middle blocker spot. Both players have earned conference player of the week accolades, with the most recent being Defensive Player of the Week for Hillyer last week. 

After a slow start in a rigorous out-of-conference schedule, the Rams have won five-in-a-row, improving their hitting percentages throughout. The rebuilding of their attack was evidenced by a season-high .442 hitting percentage against Utah State University Oct. 13.

Due to matchups against several high-level teams in their out-of-conference portion of their schedule, the Rams are set up for yet another NCAA tournament appearance if they keep pace with the Bulldogs. A conference championship would guarantee an appearance but is not a requirement as long as they win a majority of their final matchups. 

University of Wyoming (15-7, 7-3)

RPI: No. 81

Key Wins: Colorado (3-2), Arizona State (3-1), Colorado State (3-1)

Key Players: Emily Lewis, Reed Copeland, Madi Fields

Unlike the two teams previously mentioned, the Cowgirls boast a diverse offense, featuring five different hitters with over 150 kills on the year. 

Leading the way are seniors Emily Lewis and Reed Copeland. On the offensive end, Lewis leads the team in kills with 190 from her outside hitting position. Leadership from outside is in its second year for Lewis as the Olathe, Kansas native registered 304 last year.

Copeland serves as the pinnacle of the versatility for the Cowgirls, with success on both ends of the floor. The fourth-year middle blocker leads the team in blocks with 139 total, as well as a third-best mark on the team in kills with 176.

Along with their leaders on the floor, the Cowgirls possess a distinct home-court advantage in the conference, playing in one of the loudest arenas due to its size in the MW. The leg up proved vital in their match against the Rams as the senior-laden squad overtook the reigning champions in a mere four sets. 

The Cowgirls are in an interesting spot at No. 81 in the RPI, they have the opportunity to creep into contention for the postseason, nary a championship. The only possible way for them to capitalize without a conference trophy would be losing two or fewer games the rest of the way, with wins against the Rams and Bulldogs being necessary. 

University of Nevada-Las Vegas (15-7, 6-4)

RPI: No. 116

Key Wins: Boise State (3-0), Wyoming (3-1), Fordham (3-1)

Key Players: Mariena Hayden, Antonette Rolda, Elsa Descamps

Despite being fourth in the conference, the Rebels have already beaten the Broncos and Cowgirls in convincing fashion, with both coming at home.

The team is led by a defense that allows the fewest opponent kills per set in the conference (10.89). The mark comes despite the Rebels not hosting a single player in the top-10 in blocks in the conference. Their prominence on the defensive end is spearheaded by a juxtaposition in experience with senior Elsa Descamps and freshman Kate Brennan leading the way through the middle blocking spot.

The pair of 6-foot-2-inch blockers lead the team in blocks with 86 and 42 respectively, with the larger mark coming from Descamps. 

On the offensive end, sophomore outside hitter Mariena Hayden poses as the far-and-away kills leader with 382. The second-year hitter has the lead in kills for the MW, and holds the lead in points by over 100 in the conference as well. 

Despite their success on both ends of the court, the Rebels are relying on the help of several teams below them in the standings. Without multiple upsets of the three teams ahead of them in the MW standings, the Rebels have a small chance of making the postseason, with a conference champioshnip being their lone route. 

Boise State University (13-8, 5-5)

RPI: No. 121

Key Wins: Fresno State (3-1), Milwaukee (3-2), Long Beach State (3-2)

Key Players: Sabryn Roberts, Morgan Hughes, Danielle Boss 

Unlike the four teams above them in the conference, the Broncos have not accrued more wins than loses in the MW. 

Their .500 mark comes courtesy of middling rankings in every statistical category compared to their MW counterparts. Blocks are an area the Broncos have excelled in thus far though, ranking third in the conference in blocks per set (2.49). 

Leading the Broncos at the net are freshman middle blocker Jessica Donahue and senior Morgan Hughes from the same spot. Both middles are averaging over a block per set.

Seniors Sabryn Roberts and Hughes also lead the offensive charge with Roberts posting a team-high 306 kills this year. The mass amount of kills have come on a .258 hitting percentage and exactly 200 more attempts than the second-leading Bronco, sophomore Kiley Lewis.

The Broncos prospects of making the postseason took a hit when they started their conference schedule 2-3, with a pair of the loses coming to San Diego State University and San Jose State University. Each of the two are now behind the Broncos in the standings, with their wins over the squad looming large.

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