It looked like the CSU Rams were going to roll to another sweep at Moby Arena when they jumped up on the Utah Utes two sets to nothing, but Utah wouldn’t let it happen.
Then it appeared the Rams were set to drop the Utes in the fourth set, leading 24-21, but again the Utes rallied.
The Rams then took a 14-10 lead into the fifth and final set, only to see Utah again start to chip away at the Rams lead.
Finally, with a Katelyn Steffan kill, the Rams were able to shut the door, finishing off a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Utes (25-20, 25-22, 13-25, 26-28, 15-12).
“All I can tell you is, if you look back through the history of our matches with Utah, there are a lot of them that are like this,” said CSU head coach Tom Hilbert after his team won their 20th straight game in Moby Arena.
Though upset at letting Utah (7-3 overall) back into the game, Hilbert knew that it wasn’t going to be easy against a Mountain West Conference rival.
“I’m sitting there (on the bench), and having a heart attack the whole time, but for your team, I think it is good for them. It’s good for them to go through this,” said Hilbert. “I can guarantee you we will be alert and ready to play on Saturday because we had such a difficult match tonight. As hard as it is to go through as a coach, I think for the players it is good for them.”
The Utes did a good job of limiting Mekana Barnes, including sometimes triple-teaming her, but she still was able to finish with 13 kills while hitting .320.
With Barnes as the Utes focus, the rest of the Rams (9-1) saw a bit more room, and they took advantage. Hilbert said junior Tessa Nelson had her best game for the Rams, totaling 10 kills and seven blocks, and Jacque Davisson stepped up with 11 kills and maybe even more emotion than she usually shows, in large part due to the rivalry.
“Ashley asked me to bring some energy, so I thought I should do what she asked. I don’t know, but I was fired up. Utah isn’t my favorite team in the world,” said Davisson, a sophomore outside hitter.
Despite the loss, the Utes were still buzzing about the fact that they forced the final set. First they dominated the Rams in the third set, and then, after trailing 21-15 and 23-18, they pulled off the stunning comeback in the fourth set.
“I think it shows a lot of character on our part. Definitely, to come out strong and battle back that far into the match, it shows that we can win whenever we want, as long as we are focused,” said senior middle blocker Lori Baird, who led the Utes with 15 kills and 10 blocks.
After the Utah comeback, the Rams felt their experience helped them settle down to take the fifth set.
Senior Jamie Strauss especially was great for the Rams, as she pounded four of her team high 20 kills in the final frame.
The schedule doesn’t seem to get any easier for the Rams, as No. 24 Brigham Young comes into Moby Saturday night, giving the Rams little time to savor the win.
“I knew Utah would be good, and I think it is a testament that this is a good league. I don’t know what to expect out of BYU, but it will probably be the same kind of a match,” said Hilbert.
Volleyball beat writer Matthew Pucak can be reached at email@example.com.