Fresh off a loss to Colorado, the young CSU volleyball team will continue to challenge itself on the first big road trip of the season against some tough opponents.
The Rams are in Fayetteville, Ark., this weekend, playing in the Razorback Invitational. The No. 17 Rams will face two teams on the cusp of national ranking, and another that is a perennial power in its conference.
The Rams’ first task involves the Louisville Cardinals. And like their football program, the Cardinals’ volleyball team will be a tough one to stop.
“Louisville is extremely big and physical,” said CSU head coach Tom Hilbert. “In certain positions we match up well, and in others we tend to be outmatched. But Louisville has lost to some not-so-good teams recently.”
Louisville began its season with a 3-0 record, like the Rams. Its best performance came in the toppling of No. 6 Arizona. The Cardinals were catapulted to the No. 22 spot in the USA Today/AVCA Poll, and senior outside hitter Sonja Percan was named Conference USA’s Player of the Week.
Things took a turn for the worse the following week, as Percan was injured early in a contest against Georgia Tech. The Cardinals ended up losing that match, and followed it up with a loss to underdog Florida A&M. in four games.
Percan should be back for the tournament this weekend. She led the team with a .392 hitting percentage before her departure.
The Cardinals have also been getting good performances from sophomore outside hitter Bing Sun with 4.05 kills per game, and junior Anastasia Zaitseva, who filled in for Percan on the left side.
The Rams will play Oral Roberts early on Saturday. The Golden Eagles have had a respectable early season, earning victories against Oklahoma, Wake Forest and CSU’s conference rival BYU.
The Golden Eagles enter the tournament with a 5-2 record. Like the Rams they were unfortunate enough to run into the powerhouse Long Beach State. The 49ers beat them in three games and CSU in four.
Senior middle blocker Ivana Placko leads the Golden Eagles with a .291 hitting percentage and setter Anna Moreno is averaging 11.62 assists per game, which is almost as good as the 12.72 average of CSU’s Melissa Courtney.
The home team in this tournament may be the toughest to beat. Arkansas is 7-0 on the season and is gunning for a spot in the top 25.
The Ladybacks boast three All-American candidates this year and will be looking to avenge a loss to the Rams last season.
“We expect Arkansas to be better than CU because they will be more physical and they will be looking for revenge,” Hilbert said.
The Ladybacks have had a good season so far from sophomore middle blocker Jennifer Hasser, who leads the team with 3.48 kills per game and is fresh off of earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
Senior middle blocker Libby Windell carries a .379 hitting percentage and leads the team with 1.74 blocks per game. Arkansas head coach Chris Poole expects her to be an All-American candidate at the seasons end.
Working out the kinks
The Rams continued to struggle with serving errors in their loss against CU on Tuesday. The team has been working on fixing those problems, as well as working on passing drills to improve their game.
“We did some serving drills this week, and focused on some of the rotations that didn’t play well against CU,” Hilbert said. “If we want to come out of this weekend with some wins, we can’t be giving up point runs like the ones we gave the Buffs.”
The Rams had 20 service errors against CU. Passing errors were a big problem too, as many passes were long and went over the net, giving the Buffs chances at a lot of free kills.
Playing a diverse field
The Rams will face nearly 20 players that come from different countries this weekend. They will see four from Russia and Canada, three from Brazil and Croatia, and numerous others from countries like China, the Ukraine, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Many of these players have had experience on national teams.
“Foreign players tend to play a faster,” said sophomore libero Lindsey Kerr. “They have more speed in their arm swings, and the pace of the game seems to be faster. Plus they have more court time coming in, many of them start playing (competitively) at around six years old.”
Each team has six or seven a piece. The teams get got athleticism and leadership from these players. Louisville’s Bing Sun and Oral Roberts’ Ivana Placko are two of the better players the Rams will face.
Coach Hilbert entered this season ranked eighth among active Division I volleyball coaches with a .764 winning percentage. He will be facing some of his closest competition this weekend.
Louisville head coach Leonid Yelin started the season in 10th place with a .751 winning percentage, and Arkansas’ Chris Poole is close behind in 12th place win a .742. Poole has yet to have lost a match this season.
Oral Roberts’ head coach Amy Farber Knowles hasn’t been around quite long enough to make it onto the list, but she has a close tie to coach Hilbert because she played for him when he was an assistant coach at Oklahoma.
“I won’t have any problem at all (with beating Knowles),” said Hilbert. “I like to win.”