Perhaps they missed the memo, or maybe the team just ignored it.
But the No. 18-ranked CSU volleyball team certainly did not fall under the category of how a rebuilding team is supposed to play.
Sure the road was tough, and at times the Rams stumbled. But they managed to hammer out wins in three matches and, for the fifth time in the last six seasons, won the University Park Holiday Inn Classic held at Moby Arena.
The Rams answered many questions about how their young team would handle intense competition, and also got a feel for the improvements they will have to make in order to hold up their winning legacy.
It all started Friday night, when the Rams were pitted against No. 22 Kansas State. The match lasted five games, with the Rams winning in the end (26-30, 30-25, 30-24, 26-30, 15-10).
“We’d been talking all week about setting goals and having memorable matches to start the season,” head coach Tom Hilbert said. “And tonight we proved something to ourselves as a team.”
The Rams started the match a little shaky, committing six service errors in the first game. They finished with a .095 hitting percentage, compared to the Wildcats’ .125.
In the second game and third games, the Rams racked up 41 kills to the Wildcats’ 17, and took a 2-1 match lead. K-State would come back to steal the fourth game, which pushed the match into a tiebreaker.
In the rubber match, everything came together, and the Rams out-hit the Wildcats .333 to .053, with dominating performances from freshmen Dre Downs and Tess Rogers.
When it was all over, Rogers led all players with 20 kills and setter Melissa Courtney proved to be a critical part of the team’s success, amassing 63 assists. The Rams also matched all-time tournament highs with 93 digs (tied for third) and 97 points (tied for second).
“I think it was good to start out with a five game match because we’re probably going to play in a lot of them this season,” Courtney said. “It’s better that we get into that type of situation now, because we need the experience for later in the season.”
Kansas State’s Lauren Goehring had the most consistent night, with a .367 hitting percentage. The Wildcats felt like there were many chances for them to win the match.
“We ran into a very physical team tonight,” said KSU head coach Suzie Fritz. “We won the pass and serve battle, and controlled the ball better. But the Rams’ offense, especially Dre Downs, got hot and turned the momentum around on our offense.”
On Saturday afternoon, the Rams faced the Western Michigan and were able to knock the Broncos off in three games (30-24, 30-19, 30-22).
The Rams got a good performance out of junior Tiffany Doleven, who led all players with a .421 hitting percentage and 10 kills. Rogers continued to impress, hitting .381 and totaling 11 kills.
CSU played a much more controlled game than the night before, committing less than half the errors it made against K-State.
The Rams were then able to hold off Connecticut in the Saturday evening game (30-28, 35-33, 30-25).
This game was a battle of the middle blockers, as CSU’s senior Michelle Knox and sophomore Katie Jo Shirley each recorded 12 kills. Knox also tied for the most individual blocks with five and Shirley led all players hitting with a .458 percentage.
Connecticut’s Christine Lambert led all players with 13 kills and tied Knox with five blocks.
“UConn was probably the best team we faced as far as basic ball control,” Hilbert said. “Christine Lambert played very well in all of her matches, and is probably the best player at this tournament.”
The Rams’ 3-0 record at the tournament was good enough to give them their fourth consecutive title. Kansas State took second with a 2-1 record and Connecticut finished 1-2 and took third.
The Rams had three players on the All-Tournament team. Shirley finished the tournament with a .294 hitting percentage, 34 kills, five blocks and 33 digs. Downs ended with 28 kills, seven and a half blocks and seven service aces. Courtney turned in a dominating performance as she led all setters in the tournament with 142 assists.
“Melissa is fantastic,” Shirley said. “She did a good job of opening up areas where I could get the ball down.
Also making the All-Tournament team were Lambert of Connecticut and Laura Downey-Wallace, the libero for Kansas State.
K-State’s Goehring won tournament MVP with 35 kills, six and a half blocks and a tournament-leading .485 hitting percentage.
The Rams return to the court Thursday to face No. 5 Long Beach State at Moby Arena.