Three years ago, the CSU men’s basketball team made an impressive run to the Mountain West Conference tournament championship and was rewarded with a first-round match-up with powerhouse Duke.
A similar thing is happening to CSU volleyball this season. The only difference might be that the volleyball team has a very legitimate shot to win.
After achieving a fourth Mountain West tournament title last weekend in Las Vegas, the Rams must face the defending national champion Washington Huskies today at 5 p.m. at the Coors Events Center in Boulder.
Though unseeded, CSU (20-9) is one of only 10 teams who have advanced to the past 12 NCAA tournaments.
Washington (25-4) is seeded sixth in the tournament and ranked third nationally. The Huskies finished second behind Stanford in the Pac-10 Conference this season and are in their fifth consecutive tournament.
An emerging volleyball power, Washington’s resume boasts seven wins over ranked teams. All four of the squad’s losses also came against top-25 opponents.
Senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney believes the Huskies’ biggest strength is their ability to avoid mistakes.
“They don’t make errors,” she said. “We don’t make a lot, either, but we have to be able to hang in points as long as they do.”
Washington is led by Pac-10 player of the year Christal Morrison. A senior outside hitter, Morrison leads the Huskies with 4.80 kills per game and hit 27 aces on the year.
CSU must also deal with one of the nation’s top setters in senior Courtney Thompson. Thompson is averaging an NCAA-best 14.92 assists per game and set the Pac-10 record for career assists earlier this season.
Statistically speaking, Thompson has a very strong group of hitters to work with, along with Morrison. Washington’s hitting was the best in its conference this season with a .292 percentage and an average of 17.34 kills per game.
In comparison, the Rams hit .237 and averaged 15.99 kills per game in the Mountain West.
According to Head Coach Tom Hilbert, the Huskies’ style of play may remind the Rams of a Utah team they just found a way to beat on Saturday.
“They are a lot like Utah, only stronger and better,” said Hilbert. “They run the same system as Utah does but they are solid in every hitting area.
CSU also has an impressive lineup of front-row players. Junior right side hitter Tonya Mokelki (2.87 kills per game) and sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes (.288 hitting percentage) were each named to the all-Mountain West team last weekend.
In addition, the Rams have the MWC tournament MVP in Strauss, who is hitting a team-best 3.49 kills per game. Whitney is also a threat, having posted 306 kills in total on the year.
Despite all of the encouraging statistics for the Rams, the thing that may help the team the most today is the knowledge of what’s coming.
CSU was eliminated from the NCAA tournament last season in a second-round sweep against Washington. It was a match that, according to Strauss, the Rams “made a ton of errors” in.
But with more experience and consistency, she thinks this year’s result could be very different.
“We’re a better ball control team this year,” said Strauss. “We don’t make as many mistakes. At this point, anyone can win.”
“It’s just whoever brings it tomorrow at five o’clock,” added Whitney.
Whoever does will face the winner of Colorado-Boulder and 19th-ranked New Mexico State on Friday at 7 p.m. in Boulder.
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at email@example.com.
On the Air:
Every NCAA match for the Rams, including today’s against Washington, will be aired both on 90.5 KCSU FM as well as Yahoo.com.