The matches change from simply important to downright vital this weekend for the CSU volleyball team.
The Rams begin a very tough conference schedule tonight at Moby Arena, where they will host San Diego State, and then UNLV on Saturday.
The Rams are finally healthy after losing players to injury over the last two weeks, and have had a full week of practice to prepare for their conference opponents.
“We’ve been focusing on our defensive game and working on some of the smaller details in our attack, like passing on free balls and serving tough,” senior middle blocker Michelle Knox said.
The Rams finished their non-conference schedule at 8-6, and have already chalked up one conference win against Wyoming on Sept 7.
Over the next seven weeks the Rams will face the remainder of the teams in the Mountain West twice and will travel to Wyoming to close out their season series.
The conference season wraps up on Nov. 21-23 at the Mountain West Conference Tournament. In order to continue a seven-year run playing in the NCAA Tournament, the Rams will need to have a flawless finish to their season.
San Diego State has turned some heads in the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs started their conference schedule last weekend and established themselves as conference contenders with an upset over then-No. 16 Utah in five games. They also managed a three-game sweep over BYU to give them a 2-0 conference record coming into Fort Collins.
The Aztecs’ 11-7 overall record is a little deceiving because three of those losses were against top 25 teams, including four-game matches against No. 7 UC-Santa Barbara and No. 21 Missouri.
“San Diego State definitely made an impression on the conference last weekend, and they have a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball,” Knox said.
The Aztecs bring in a well-balanced attack, starting five players with triple-figures in kills.
Middle Blocker Aspen McPartland leads the team with 189 kills and 193 digs. She has been named Mountain West Conference Player of the Week the last two consecutive weeks.
McPartland gets a lot of help on the outside from Zlatina Anguelova, whose 161 kills and 149 digs are both good for second place on the team. Rochelle Currier gets most of the time on the opposite side and has added 143 kills.
The Aztecs’ system is different from the Rams in that it does not feature a libero for defensive purposes. The team keeps a strong offensive lineup on the floor most of the time and relies on McPartland, Anguelova and setter Melissa Wright to handle most of the digs.
This system allows them to use defensive specialist Robyn Gregg in defensive situations, but also to take advantage of her exceptional jump serve. Gregg posted a record 40 aces in Mountain West play last season and is only one behind the Rams’ Dre Downs with 28 this season.
The Aztecs lead the all-time series over the Rams 12-10 with the Rams winning the last seven matches. San Diego State will be looking to end this streak with one of the better squads they’ve had in recent years.
As for UNLV, this season has been a bit rocky so far. The Rebels have posted a 4-11 overall record (0-2 in conference) and will play at Wyoming on Friday night.
The Rebels began the season on a good note, tallying wins against UC-Riverside and Army, but are currently trying to halt a seven-game losing streak.
The Rebels have utilized several different lineups this season and 15 players have had playing time. Outside Hitter Leiana Oswald has played in all of the Rebels matches this season and has 175 kills and 19 aces.
On the opposite side, Patricia Assuncao is second on the team with 164 kills and leads the team in blocks with 47.
The Rebels have been dividing time at middle blocker among Shiela Ocasio-Clemente, Blair Wilkes and Sarah Fachner. Wilkes leads the trio with 63 kills and a .294 hitting percentage.
“UNLV plays with a lot of athleticism, and they are bringing back a lot of players from last season. We won’t overlook them,” Knox said.
The Rams own the all-time series against the Rebels, 12-2. UNLV’s last win against the Rams was in 1999 in Las Vegas.
-Edited by Jon Ackerman and Josh Hardin