There is not a lot of breathing room in the Mountain West Conference right now.
With three weeks left in the regular season, the league standings are still tight.
For CSU, there is only one option in the coming weeks: Win. One more loss, and any real hope for a regular season title will be gone.
Riding high on a 10-match winning streak, the Rams (15-6, 9-2) prepare for a match with the Air Force Falcons (3-19, 0-11) today at 7 p.m. in Moby Arena.
This winning streak, the second longest for the program since the Mountain West’s inception in 1999, has the Rams feeling extremely confident about their ability to compete for the league title.
“We’ve passed an important hurdle as a team,” said Head Coach Tom Hilbert. “We know what it means to play well with the personnel we have.”
One of the most surprising players this season has been freshman libero Katelin Batten. Last Thursday against Wyoming, Batten reached 272 digs on the year, surpassing Nalani Yamshita’s 270 in 1992 for the most in a season for a CSU freshman.
“We are so thankful to have her on our team,” said senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney, who played at libero last season. “She doesn’t play like a freshman. She is just really good.”
Batten said she always hoped to have that kind of an impact.
“That was one of my goals from the start of the season, to play so that no one could tell I was a freshman.” she said. “I wanted to be vocal and be a leader on this team.”
Considering she ranks eighth in the league in digs and has played almost the entirety of every match thus far, those goals are coming to fruition.
A lot like the team’s goals.
CSU, tied for second place in the Mountain West, is still alive for a conference championship, though they may need some help.
Utah, currently ranked ninth in the country, is undefeated in conference play. The Utes would need to lose at least one match, coupled with the Rams winning their next four, for the two teams’ Nov. 18 match to matter.
According to Hilbert, no matter what happens with their conference rivals, the preparation remains the same.
“We can’t control (Utah),” he said. “We just have to play our matches. Even if that (Nov. 18) match isn’t for the conference, it is still very important for us. ”
After today’s match with Air Force, CSU travels to San Diego State and Nevada-Las Vegas before the final weekend of the season against Brigham Young and Utah at home.
For those matches to mean something, the Rams cannot afford to drop a home match to a team that has only three wins on the season, and none in conference play.
The Falcons come in winless in conference, not having won a single game against Mountain West foes. Air Force is in last place in the conference in most statistical categories, including hitting percentage (.062) and digs (12.60).
CSU, on the flipside, is peaking at just the right time in its schedule. The Rams come into today’s match with the league’s third-best hitting percentage (.240) and the second-best opponent hitting percentage (.140).
Count on the Rams having their attention focused on the Falcons today, but don’t be surprised if they have an eye on the scoreboard immediately afterward.
Some very big matches are on the horizon and, with them, a shot at the conference title.
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.