After 11 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, the CSU volleyball team is aiming to keep one of the most successful programs on campus right where it is.
With four returning starters and eight newcomers, the process won’t be without its bumps in the road; but the end goal is the same, and the Rams are confident they won’t miss a beat this season.
THE ROSTER TO WIN
Head Coach Tom Hilbert enters his 10th season at CSU, and his 18th overall in the NCAA. His head coach record of 241-54, with a winning percentage of .817, is one of the best among all Division I coaches, especially in the Mountain West Conference.
Hilbert and the Rams have several key players back from 2005. Most notably is senior Katherine Whitney, who Hilbert is moving from libero to outside hitter this season to partially fill the spot left by graduating seniors Tess Rogers and Casey Bauer.
Hilbert said he wants to have one of his best players at the outside hitter position, so it was logical to make the move with Whitney. It’s not the first time it’s happened, either.
“We have made position changes with Katherine every year,” he said. “She’s making the transition well – she always has.”
Mekana Barnes, a sophomore middle blocker who Hilbert said is the Rams’ “go-to player,” will complement Whitney. After posting 240 kills last year as a freshman (2.29 per game), Barnes will be an aggressive player on a smaller and more conservative team.
The Rams lineup is, on average, more than an inch shorter than the lineups of the two teams picked ahead of the Rams in a MWC preseason poll, Utah and BYU. Barnes said the other teams’ size and likely aggressiveness doesn’t intimidate the Rams, however.
“Our team will be different from those teams, but we can absolutely still play with them,” she said.
Sophomore outside hitter Jaime Strauss agreed.
“We’re not very big,” she said, “but our expectations won’t be any different.”
Hilbert is focusing on this team’s ability to be more defensive and said he thinks it can overcome bigger, stronger opponents.
“We don’t have the termination ability we have had in the past, but we can keep balls alive a lot longer,” Hilbert said. “Utah is really good, but we just need to be aware of what we’re up against.”
To win with this new style of play, the Rams will use the several returning players to their full advantage. One is sophomore Ashley Fornstrom, who will start for the second straight season at setter. She had 202 digs in 2005 and 11.7 assists per game. Hilbert said he expects big things from her and claims, “she might be the best player on this team right now.”
Also needed to step up for the Rams is junior right side hitter Tonya Mokelki, who had 262 kills in 108 games in 2005. Strauss will be key as well, having 33 kills in a more limited roll last year. Junior middle blocker Amanda Fahnestock is also an experienced option for Hilbert off the bench.
But the story of the season may be decided by how the key newcomers work into the mix. The most likely to contribute is Katelin Batten, who will start at libero.
Hilbert had high praise for the Parker product.
“Katelin came in here and immediately was one of the best players on our team,” said Hilbert. “She’ll make a lot of defensive plays for us. I’m trying not to say too much to her and just let her play.”
Other newcomers for the Rams include two redshirts from 2005, senior Lindsey Hillegass and freshman Tessa Nelson. Hillegass will see time at libero setter, while Nelson will play mainly at middle blocker.
The Rams have four other freshmen, including Jonelle Wallace, who, although she is coming off a knee injury, Hilbert said is “probably the fastest kid on our team right now.”
THE CHEMISTRY TO WIN
New players and new positions for old ones are somewhat a concern for the team, but something the Rams believe they can work out.
“At first, having only two seniors made me nervous,” said Herbert. “But, after seeing us play, I’m not uncomfortable at all.”
The team seemed to agree with their coach.
“This team has great chemistry,” said Whitney, who hopes to take on a leadership role this season. “There are a lot of new people but I think we work together well as a team.”
All the new faces will have to fit in quickly, as the Rams will have stiff competition inside and outside of the conference this year. CSU was picked third in the MWC in a preseason coaches’ poll, behind Utah and BYU. Utah also was ranked 24th in the national top 25 poll.
The Utes will return five starters from a team who won the Mountain West Conference tournament in 2005. BYU had three players named to the preseason all-MWC team, including defending conference player of the year Lindsey Hartsock.
“This conference is better than it’s been in awhile,” said Hilbert. “Utah and BYU are very good, but teams like UNLV and New Mexico will sneak up on people, too.”
But the challenges won’t come only from within the conference. Six of the 10 non-conference opponents for the Rams this year made it to the NCAA tournament in 2005. Two of those are currently ranked in the top 25: California at 17 and Pepperdine at 19.
A 12th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament won’t be an easy feat, but it’s a challenge the Rams are ready to face.
“We want to challenge for a conference title,” said Fahnestock. “We know it’s a good, tough conference but we’ll be ready.”
Staff writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.
Starters Lost From 2005:
Tess Rogers OH
Casey Bauer OH
Dre Downs MB
11 Tessa Nelson MB (Fr.)*
5 Lindsey Hillegass L/DS (Sr.)*
8 Katie O’Hara MB (Fr.)
*Denotes a 2005 redshirt.
Friday, Sept. 1 vs. Wake Forest (Coors Invitational)
Friday, Sept. 8 at California
Friday, Sept 15 at Utah
Saturday, Sept. 16 at BYU
Thursday, Oct. 26 vs. Wyoming
Friday, Nov. 17 vs. BYU
Saturday, Nov. 18 vs. Utah
Mountain West Conference Tournament:
Nov. 22-25 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Head Coach: Tom Hilbert
251-54 (.817) at CSU (10th year), 415-126 all-time (18th year).
Assistant Coaches: Karie Larsen, Jesse Mahoney
21-9, (12-4 MWC)
NCAA Tourney: Lost 2nd round to eventual champion Washington