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Loberger: Rams’ historic season not defined by tournament loss

All good things must come to an end, but for Tom Hilbert and the Colorado State volleyball team, it feels like the end has come too soon. 

After a historic regular season where CSU collected 28-straight victories, claimed their third-straight Mountain West Conference title, their 21st overall, and secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the 25th consecutive season, the Rams and their senior-laden core seemed poised for a postseason run. 

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Senior Kirstie Hillyer runs down the line of starters after her name in announced in the starting lineup. (Lucy Morantz | The Collegian)

The Rams had only advanced past the first round in tournament play once in the last three years with this group of seniors back in 2017. With a formidable foe in South Carolina this season, the storyline followed a similar narrative, as the Rams fell 3-2 (27-25, 17-25, 25-22, 14-25, 18-16) to the Gamecocks in round one of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

The sting of defeat is amplified by the fact that the Rams relinquished a 13-8 lead in the fifth set, allowing the Gamecocks to score 10 of the last 13 points, taking the final frame 18-16 and sending SC to the next round. 

“Kirstie Hillyer, our best player, had two swings to win that game, and we didn’t get it,” Hilbert said. “You have to give South Carolina credit; they did the right thing at critical times.”

The Rams dominated South Carolina on the stat sheet. CSU out-killed them (73-58) , out-assisted them (69-51), recorded more digs (69-59) and had a higher hitting percentage (.317 to SC’s .255) than the Gamecocks. However, errors haunted the Rams in the game and put free points on the board for South Carolina. 

Coming into the game, the Rams had held their competition to an average hitting mark of near .100. South Carolina’s mark of .255 was the second highest the Rams yielded all season. This mark came second to only the University of California, Berkeley, who accounted for the other defeat on the Rams’ near-perfect record. 

“It’s so frustrating,” setter Katie Oleksak said. “Those end-game situations, in different sets throughout the whole match, is when we really needed to make fewer errors, and we didn’t. It especially sucks because we played well in every other aspect of the game.”

The Rams had played clean volleyball for the majority of the season, but CSU ended the game with 44 total errors17 of them coming on serves.

At times this season, the Rams had issues with service errors, but it was often overlooked since the Rams were able to keep adding tallies to the win column. In their last game of the regular season, the Rams recorded 11 service errors against the Denver Pioneers and escaped DU in a five-set victory.  

This trend carried over to CSU’s first-round matchup against the Gamecocks. The coupling of the physicality of South Carolina and the extended rallies in the match forced CSU out of their comfort zone just enough for the Gamecocks to edge out the Rams.

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Despite the loss, the Rams had an incredible season, setting numerous records and holding special moments for both players and fans. This defeat doesn’t discredit or take away from any of the accolades and memories the Rams formed during these last four seasons. 

While the rest of the team receives their Mountain West Championship hats and T-shirts, junior Breana Runnels (facing camera) hugs her teammate, senior Katie Oleksak. (Lucy Morantz | The Collegian)

“This is an incredible group that stayed together over a long period of time,” Hilbert said. “I’m very proud of them, and I wouldn’t want to coach anybody else.”

CSU’s fab-five of seniors have played their last game in the green and gold. Oleksak, Olivia Nicholson, Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, Jessica Jackson and Hillyer have left their mark on the CSU program, and those who support the Rams know how special and close-knit this team has become the past four years.

The group ended their respective careers with a combined 1,853 sets played, powering the Rams to an overall record of 102-23, three Mountain West Championships and four NCAA Tournament births. 

Oleksak was named the 2019 MW Player of the Year, making her the only player in MW volleyball history to win the award three times in her career.

Like always, Hilbert has another crop of young talent that figures to make their way into the limelight next season. The Rams will return a trio of starters with outside hitter Breana Runnels, libero Alexa Roumeliotis and defensive specialist Brooke Hudson. 

Runnels, one of the most lethal hitters in CSU history, will be back for her senior season along with Roumeliotis as the Rams look to remain the team to beat in the Mountain West. 

Ryan Loberger can be reached at sports@collegian.com  or on Twitter @LobergerRyan

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