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Can CSU volleyball maintain dominance without Oleksak?

There’s no question that last year’s CSU volleyball team was one of the best teams the program has ever produced. Some could even argue it was the best volleyball team to don the green and gold, and it’s easy to see why.

Last year, the Rams lost one game in the regular season, falling just short against the University of California all the way back in August of 2019. After that loss, the Rams went on an unprecedented streak of victories, winning a program-record 28 games in a row before heading into the NCAA Tournament with a record of 29-1 and donning the title of the 27th ranked team in the entire country.

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“It begs the question, is the CSU volleyball team positioned to struggle this year more than they have in the past?”

Although the Rams looked unstoppable going into the tournament, it just wasn’t their day on Dec. 6, 2019, as the Rams bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the first round after losing 3-2 against the University of South Carolina — a loss that came as a surprise to the Fort Collins faithful and national audiences alike.

As if losing out in the first round wasn’t discouraging enough for Rams fans, the loss of five seniors, including star player Katie Oleksak, to graduation added to the disappointment of Rams fans at the end of last season. Looking ahead to the newly rescheduled 2020 season, the impacts these players had on the team, namely Oleksak, are going to be missed. 

Oleksak’s season last year was also one of record-breaking caliber. The 5-foot-10-inch setter led the Mountain West in assists on her way to setting a new school record in her final season to become CSU’s all-time assist leader. On top of that, Oleksak was named to the All-Conference team for the fourth year in a row and became the first player in Mountain West history to be named the conference’s Player of the Year three times over after winning the award in 2017, 2018 and in her final season in 2019. 

It begs the question on whether the CSU volleyball team is positioned to struggle this year more than they have in the past. Even though they may have lost five seniors and one of the best players the program has ever seen, when you remember that Tom Hilbert is the head coach, it’s safe to say that we can expect business as usual for the Rams volleyball squad.

Hilbert has proven himself as an all-time great coach. The CSU hall-of-famer is the winningest coach in all of CSU Athletics and boasts a record of 590-136 during his time at CSU. That record becomes more impressive when you realize that his conference record is 298-40. Under Hilbert’s tenure, the Rams have never finished lower than third in the Mountain West, and his team has never failed to reach the NCAA tournament.

So the question shouldn’t be “Are the Rams going to be successful?” because there’s no doubt that they will be. The question, rather, should be “Who is going to step up and be that player for the Rams this season?”

I postulate that senior outside hitter Breana Runnels will be the key player for CSU this season. The 5-foot-10-inch Californian is already CSU’s all-time leader in kills, leads the Mountain West in the same category last season with 417 and comes up third in the conference in points.

CSU can feel pretty confident going into this season with the offensive presence that Runnels brings coupled with Hilbert’s expert organization, and I’m sure we can expect the Rams to continue their success in the 2020 season.

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Bailey Shepherd can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @B_Sheps.

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