This weekend’s opponents for CSU volleyball might not be Utah and Brigham Young, but the Rams are approaching them in the same way.
Both matches factor in to the race for the Mountain West championship, which the Rams (10-6, 4-2) still expect to be a part of.
Currently, the Rams sit in a tie for third place with Nevada-Las Vegas (13-5, 4-2), who they face today at 7 p.m. at Moby Arena.
Both teams lost their only conference matches to Utah and BYU, who currently are first and second, respectively, in the Mountain West.
San Diego State, which comes to Moby on Saturday at 7 p.m. to face the Rams, is eighth in the standings. But the Aztecs (7-11, 1-5) have proven to be a dangerous team so far this season.
Head Coach Tom Hilbert said these are matches that determine who competes for the championship and who does not.
“We are aware of where we’re at in the standings,” he said. “There is a big lump of teams right after Utah, and someone’s going to emerge. These are the kind of matches that are must-wins for us if we want to win the conference.”
UNLV comes into today’s match having swept three of their last four opponents. Only a road match at New Mexico on Sept. 30 required the Rebels to go further, though they won that match in five games.
Junior outside hitter Maria Aladjova is averaging 3.79 kills a game, fifth best in the conference. Freshman middle blocker Erin Greenwood is eighth in the conference in hitting percentage at .309.
“If you look at the statistics, we are very equal to UNLV in a lot of ways,” Hilbert said. “We are both very young and very talented.”
Saturday’s match against San Diego State is one that looks like a sure win for the Rams, but the Aztecs have shown more grit than their record suggests.
Including wins against Kentucky and Syracuse, SDSU posted a 6-6 record against their non-conference opponents. Their win in the Mountain West came against Wyoming in four games. CSU also went to four games in a victory over the Cowgirls.
Senior outside hitter Melanie Greene is sixth best in the conference with 3.76 kills per game, leading a fairly experienced Aztecs team.
With the Rams conference schedule nearly halfway done, these matches become all the more important. If they expect to stay within striking distance of Utah and BYU, the team knows it has to beat everyone else in the Mountain West.
“It’s incredibly important for us to stay in it for conference,” said senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney. “I think we have a sense of urgency as a team right now.”
Whitney and the Rams can be confident in their own ability, considering how dominant they have been the past few weeks. Since back-to-back losses to Utah and BYU in mid-September, CSU has won five straight matches – surrendering only one game in that stretch.
All of this has come mostly without one of the Rams’ key players, sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes, who was limited with an injury to her left ankle.
Junior middle blocker Amanda Fahnestock filled in nicely for Barnes, including an 11-kill match against TCU on Sept. 23.
Now that Barnes is back and near 100 percent, playing time may become an issue against UNLV and SDSU. But, according to Whitney, it’s not going to be a factor.
“I think we’re handling it well,” she said. “Whoever is going to get us to win will play, and I think everybody is fine with that.”
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.