Rams head to Washington for NCAA tournament

Sergio Santistevan

Another year, another NCAA Volleyball Tournament appearance for Coach Tom Hilbert’s squad. For the 24th-consecutive season, the Colorado State volleyball team will make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

After an up and down start, the Rams won 12 straight games in the latter portion of the season to finish first in the Mountain West with a 23-7 record and 15-3 in the conference to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

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Fortunately for the Rams, there will be no traveling to Stanford University this weekend. The Cardinals are the Rams most common tournament opponent in school history and the No.1 overall seed in this year’s tournament.

Instead, CSU will travel to Pullman, Washington in a region hosted by Washington State University. Joined by two other teams, along with the host, CSU has to defeat two teams this weekend in order to advance in the tournament, starting with the University of Tennessee.

“We kind of thought we were gonna be put in Stanford again. Which would be a fun challenge, but you know, then again, they’re ranked first. So it is nice to know we are in Pullman, Washington and that it is a very winnable outcome.”Katie Olesak

Tennessee

The Rams and the Volunteers go head-to-head on Friday at 4 p.m. in the Bohler Gymnasium.

When both teams take the court, there will be a sense of unfamiliarity. Both schools have only met four times in history, with the most recent meeting coming in 2012 on a neutral site tournament held in Wichita, Kansas in a match the Volunteers won. In the first meeting in 1983, the Volunteers came out victorious, but CSU won back-to-back matches in 1990 and 2009.

Tennessee (25-5) finished second in the Southeastern Conference this season. Under first-year Head Coach Eve Rackham, the Volunteers have won 11 matches in a row and are making their first tournament appearance since 2012.

Both teams played common opponents this season, like Indiana State University and Louisiana State University, and each team came out victorious in those respective matchups.

Volleyball set
Katie Oleksak sets the ball against San Diego State on Thursday October 25, 2018. Katie is a junior at Colorado State from Pheonix Arizona. (Alyse Oxenford | Collegian)

On Sunday evening at The Mayor of Old Town, Hilbert told fans that he doesn’t know much about Tennessee but gave his respect to Rackham as a coach.

“I think we got a great draw. I don’t know much about Tennessee, I know they’ve been an emerging team this year,” Hilbert said at the selection show watch party. “I’m sure they’re a very athletic team in the SEC.”

Hilbert will have to game plan for Tennessee’s senior middle blocker Erica Treiber and junior outside hitter Tessa Grubbs who was voted to the All-SEC Team.

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Treiber ended the season ranked in the top five of her conference in hitting percentage, blocks per set and aces per set, an accomplishment that only one other player in the nation achieved. Also, she holds the highest career hitting percentage (.360) in program history.

Grubbs played a large role on the attack, as she finished with six 20-plus kill matches in the last 10 matches. She finished the season with 414 kills, enough to rank her in the top-30 nationally.

Northern Arizona

In the event of an upset over the host-team, the Rams will meet up with Northern Arizona Saturday.

The Lumberjacks (26-8) earned their way into the tournament by winning the Big Sky Conference. This will be NAU’s third time in the big dance in program history (1999 and 2015). Much like Tennessee and CSU, the Lumberjacks rode a late-season winning streak of 13 straight matches, their second-longest win streak in history.

With the University of Nevada, Reno, Portland State University and the University of Northern Colorado as three common opponents, there is a lot of tape both teams can evaluate before their potential matchup.

Big Sky Co-Most Valuable Player Kaylie Jorgenson will be something the Rams will try and shut down as the redshirt senior has recorded a total of 488.5 points on the year.

Washington State

Washington State is the host team this weekend for a reason.

The Cougars (21-9) are the No. 16 overall seed and are making their third-straight appearance in the tournament under Coach Jen Greeny. In a rigid Pac-12 conference, where two-thirds of the conference is appearing in the tournament, the Cougars finished in fourth place.

In the past two seasons, WSU advanced past their first game but fell the following night.

The Rams and Cougars have only one common opponent, the University of Colorado. CSU fell to the Buffaloes 3-1, but the Cougars defeated their Pac-12 conference foe twice this season.

Seniors Taylor Mims and McKenna Woodford lead the way for Cougars. Mims and Woodford each earned All-Pac-12 Team honors. 

The Rams celebrate after a good play during the game against Fresno State Oct. 27. (Ashley Potts | Collegian)

Mims is efficient on the offensive attack, averaging 3.78 kills per set. She has recorded over 1,000 kills in her career and ranks in the top 10 in nearly every category in program history.

WSU’s other offensive weapon, Woodford, led the team in kills this season with 398. Woodford averages 3.37 kills per set and is fourth-all time in program history in points, behind Mims.

CSU will be challenged this weekend in a win-or-go-home scenario but coming out of Pullman is achievable in the eyes of the Rams.

“We kind of thought we were gonna be put in Stanford again,” Oleksak said. “Which would be a fun challenge, but you know, then again, they’re ranked first. So it is nice to know we are in Pullman, Washington and that it is a very winnable outcome.” 

Sergio Santistevan can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @TheRealsSergio.