In a season many could argue that the CSU volleyball team exceeded expectations, the Rams were rewarded for their success with a trip to Hawaii and a chance to play a few more games.
Tonight’s match against Washington will be the first NCAA Tournament experience for the team’s five true freshmen. Tess Rogers, Casey Bauer, Melissa Dennett, Melva Johnson and Gwen Davis get the treat of earning a trip to the tournament in their first season as Rams.
Katie Jo Shirley, Melissa Courtney and Andreya Downs all traveled with last year’s team, but will see their first tournament court-time against the 19-10 Huskies.
“This is a good opportunity for us as a young team to experience this now,” Rogers said. “If we can go out there and play well this year, it’s going to give us a lot of confidence in the future.”
If the Rams can get past the Huskies they will most likely face No. 2 Hawaii in the second round. The Rainbow Wahines were 30-1 this season, are perennial contenders for the national championship and face Western Kentucky in the first round.
The team endured the 10-hour flight out to Honolulu Wednesday morning, but planed on getting as close to a pre-game routine as possible this morning.
“Hopefully we get some good practice time in,” CSU coach Tom Hilbert said. “If we do, I think we’ll be able to play with some energy and enthusiasm. And that’s what we’ve got to do, go out there and play with some jump in our step. I thought our practice (Monday) was great in that regard, and we’ve just got to keep that feeling.”
The Huskies are coming off a season in which they were 9-9 in the highly competitive Pac-10 conference. They are one of eight teams in the conference to receive a bid in the tournament.
The Huskies finished fifth in the Pac-10, a conference that boasts five nationally-ranked teams, including No. 1 USC and No. 3 Stanford. Washington coach Jim McLaughlin has earned the team its first NCAA tournament birth since 1997 in his second season.
The Huskies finished out their regular season with four consecutive wins. Their offensive clout rides on the arm of outside hitter Paige Benjamin, who finished the season averaging 5.28 kills per game and hit .336.
On the opposite side, Sanja Tomasevic had 386 kills, 39 service aces and was second on the team with 326 digs. Alexis McDonald anchors the middle for the Huskies with 1.16 blocks per game.
“Preparing for this team is a lot harder than anyone else this season because we only get four days,” Hilbert said. “But they’re in the same situation, so I think we have a good shot at beating them if we play to our capabilities.”
The teams have met four times prior to tonight with each team winning two matches. The last meeting was in 1997 when the Rams won a four-game match.
This is the Rams’ eighth consecutive trip to the tournament. They have reached the Sweet 16 each of the last three years, but have advanced no further.
Utah is the only other team from the Mountain West Conference invited to the tournament. The Utes face Texas A&M at Southern California Friday.