Rams volleyball prepares for Hilbert’s final MW tournament

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Collegian | Serena Bettis

Colorado State University volleyball fans hold signs to honor head coach Tom Hilbert after his last regular season home game at Moby Arena Nov. 12. Hilbert announced his retirement Nov. 7 after 26 years at CSU. The Rams won the game 3-1 against the United States Air Force Academy and will likely return for the Mountain West Volleyball Champion Tournament at the end of November.

Braidon Nourse, Sports Editor

In Colorado State University volleyball head coach Tom Hilbert’s final Mountain West Conference tournament, his team is the underdog — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hilbert announced a little over a week ago that he will be retiring following the conclusion of this season, his 35th as a collegiate head coach and his 26th as Colorado State’s head coach. Despite the legendary resume he’s put together over that time — including holding the 17th spot for most career wins by a Division I coach at 813 — he says they “still have work to do.”

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“I don’t think we’re supposed to win the tournament. … I think it’s important for everybody to look at it that way. We need to go out and almost take an underdog mentality and just say, ‘Hey, let’s go fight everybody and compete,’ and see what happens.” –Tom Hilbert, CSU volleyball head coach

This year’s tournament, for the first time since 2004, will be held in Fort Collins Nov. 23-25. Although the team will be looking at themselves as underdogs, it certainly is nice to play high stakes at home.

“Playing on our home court will be a huge advantage because we’re just so used to it,” said Annie Sullivan, senior Rams hitter. “But then also, we have such a great fan base, and so hopefully they can show up and give us a lot of energy and momentum going into the tournament.”

The Rams are no stranger to postseason success. Since the Mountain West started having volleyball tournaments in 1999, the Rams have won five of the 11 tournaments (no tournaments were held 2008-10 and 2012-20). In a moment of reflection, Hilbert said there was nothing more special than their 2006 tournament victory.

“Beating (The University of) Utah when we were unranked and they were ranked ninth in the nation, that was by far and away the best moment in the Mountain West tournament for me,” Hilbert said. “Had we not won that, we would not have been in the NCAA tournament; it would have broke the string of NCAA tournament berths. So it was a huge, huge win for us as a three seed to beat Utah.”

As of the morning of Nov. 17, the Rams are poised to enter the tournament as — go figure — the three seed as long as they win their final game or Utah State University loses one or both of their last two matches. Despite what this tournament means in terms of Hilbert’s legacy, the team is trying their best to treat it like business as usual.

“We kind of came together and said the focus is just to finish out the season — the goals didn’t change; the finish line for us is, ‘Let’s go make the NCAA tournament and compete in the NCAA tournament,’” junior hitter Kennedy Stanford said. “And so I think (Hilbert)’s retirement has kind of added a little extra motivation to push through, but we all know the goal is the same.”

It’s not often that athletes are able to play under a coach of Hilbert’s stature, and it’s even less often that an athlete plays on that coach’s final roster. For the Rams slated to play during this tournament, that aspect makes it all the more remarkable.

“(Hilbert) has been on the team for so long, and he has such a big legacy there,” Sullivan said. “He’s going to go down as one of the greatest college volleyball coaches, so just being able to play for him is super special.”

As of late, the Rams hit a bit of turbulence, losing three of their last five games. Those three losses all came in a row, marking the first time since 2006 that CSU lost three straight conference games.

But getting the tough times out of the way before it really counts might just prove to be beneficial to the Rams. Not only does it leave a chip on players’ shoulders but it allows time and opportunity to learn from mistakes and come out on the other side as a better team.

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“You’re having experiences where you have to come from behind, … and that’s always very important,” Hilbert said. “Those are big experiences and important experiences. As much as they’re stressful at the time, it’s important that the players understand that it’s good for them.”

As he prepares for his final conference tournament, Hilbert just hopes to relish it and maybe just go out with a victory.

“I hope that I can just sit back and enjoy it and have fun,” Hilbert said. “That’s sometimes difficult for me to do, but you know, I want to win that tournament. But I don’t think we’re supposed to win the tournament. … I think it’s important for everybody to look at it that way. We need to go out and almost take an underdog mentality and just say, ‘Hey, let’s go fight everybody and compete,’ and see what happens.”

Reach Braidon Nourse at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @BraidonNourse.