This weekend at Moby Arena, CSU volleyball was given a lesson in the sports adage that you can’t judge a team by its record.
Had they done so, it would have been expected that Friday’s match against Nevada-Las Vegas would be the tight one and Saturday’s with San Diego State would be a breeze.
Instead, the exact opposite happened.
Coming into the match, UNLV was tied with CSU for third place in the Mountain West and SDSU was second-to-last.
After disposing of the Rebels easily the night before, the Rams had to scratch and claw their way to a four-game 30-16, 30-28, 27-30, 30-21 win over the Aztecs.
What, on paper, looked to be an easy win for the Rams (12-6, 6-2), turned out to be one of their closest and most hard-fought matches of the year. Head Coach Tom Hilbert made it clear that the Aztecs are a lot better than their record suggests.
“They’re a much better team than that,” he said of the Aztecs (8-12, 2-6). “There is a lot of talent on that team. The best thing for us to take from this is that we played two very competitive matches this weekend and we grew as competitors.”
Helping the competition for the Rams was sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes, who was back and looking more like her former self following several weeks struggling with a left ankle injury.
Barnes co-led the Rams with 17 kills on 32 attacks. She said she felt comfortable despite the nagging injury.
“It’s continuously getting better,” she said of the ankle. “It’s still painful, but it’s something I’m going to fight through.”
Fight would be a good way to describe the entire match for Barnes and the Rams. After committing zero hitting errors in the first game of the match – the first time the team had accomplished that this year – SDSU responded with a scrappy second game.
Rams senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney turned it on late in that game, getting an important kill to put CSU up 28-27. After an Aztec hitting error made it 29-27 for the Rams, SDSU’s senior outside hitter Melanie Greene got a kill to pull her team back within one.
But on the following point, sophomore setter Ashley Fornstrom set up Whitney for the Rams’ game-winning kill.
It turned out to be huge win for CSU because the Aztecs came out firing in the third game and were able to pull out to an early 10-7 lead. CSU kept it close the whole way, but Greene again stepped up late for the Aztecs’ 30-27 win.
Greene had 4 kills in the game and finished with 16 for the match.
Keeping with the theme Hilbert has been preaching from the beginning of the season, the Rams flew all over the court in the fourth, picking up 24 digs to wrap up the match with a 30-21 victory.
“This match was a significant improvement for us,” said Barnes. “We had to fight back. We did a good job doing that and staying composed.”
CSU finished with 81 kills and a .290 team hitting percentage, while the Aztecs totaled 53 kills and a .152 percentage.
According to the scoreboard, Friday’s match with UNLV was a bit less tense for the Rams, but the Rebels fought hard in a 30-27, 31-29, 30-22.
Hilbert kept busy against the Rebels, subbing in and out players at different front-row positions all night. With Barnes’ healthy return, Hilbert had to juggle her playing time with her replacement, junior Amanda Fahnestock, as well as freshman Tessa Nelson and junior Tonya Mokelki.
“I kind of felt like a basketball coach out there,” Hilbert said. “It looks like we’re really deep because we have so many people playing at different positions.”
All of the substitutions and different front-row lineups did not seem to adversely affect the Rams, who finished with 47 kills and 14 team blocks. UNLV (14-6, 5-3) was held to 39 kills and a .013 hitting percentage.
Junior outside hitter Maria Aladjova led the Rebels with 14 kills on 53 attacks.
Nelson, who tied her career high with 9 blocks against the Rebels, said she had no problem staying in a rhythm despite the changes.
“I go in every three rotations, so it’s pretty easy for me to stay focused,” she said. “We work on so many different rotations during practice that by the end of the week it all feels natural.”
CSU finished the first half of its conference schedule at 6-2. Up next is a road trip to face Texas Christian and New Mexico on Friday and Saturday.
Volleyball beat reporter Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.
MWC Standings: MWC Overall
1. Utah 8-0 17-2
2. BYU 7-1 16-2
3. CSU 6-2 12-6
4. UNLV 5-3 14-6
5. TCU 4-4 16-6
6. Wyoming 2-6 8-10
6. New Mexico 2-6 6-13
6. San Diego State 2-6 8-12
9. Air Force 0-8 1-15