In a match-up against a team featuring its own All-American, the Rams defeated the University of New Mexico Lobos in five sets on Sunday for their 25th consecutive win at home and 13th overall.
The Rams (16-1, 6-0 MWC) defeated the talented Lobos (14-4, 4-3) team 3-2 (25-17, 20-25, 20-25, 25-16, 15-12) but had to overcome a monster game from the Lobos’ All-American, senior outside-hitter Jeanne Fairchild.
Led by arguably the conference’s best player in Fairchild, the Lobos went up 2-1 after a 25-20 win in set three. The Rams then turned to its own seniors to finish out the match with a 25-16 win in set four and a 15-12 win in set five.
“I feel like Jaime, Mekana and I stress that a lot, as a core group, that we need to lead our team and when we do get in tough situations be the ones to make plays and keep our team focused and composed,” said senior setter Ashley Fornstrom, who finished with 59 assists.
The Ram’s senior All-American, Mekana Barnes, recorded four of her team-leading 19 kills in the fourth set while fellow senior Jaime Strauss recorded four as well. Strauss went on to finish with 18 kills.
“I was impressed with their demeanor after we lost the third game,” said head coach Tom Hilbert. “I was trying to be calm. These guys were getting after it; sort of having a refuse to lose mentality to it. I liked what I heard there.”
Fornstrom put it simply.
“At that point it was do or die,” said Fornstrom. “We either had to step up or go down 3-1.”
Hilbert was especially impressed with Strauss’s outside hitting as the match progressed.
“Jaime stepped up as this match progressed too,” said Hilbert. “She hit a lot smarter and just did what seniors are supposed to do.”
The Lobos’ Fairchild, meanwhile, finished with 27 kills, threading through the Ram defense.
“There’s a reason people say that kid’s (Fairchild) the best player in the conference. She’s just a very dynamic athlete. Fairchild’s the best outside hitter we’ve played this season,” Hilbert said.
“You know she’s a good player, she’s going to score some points,” said Barnes. “I think we could’ve done a better job limiting her to less than 27 kills, but she earned all those kills.”
New Mexico’s head coach Jeff Nelson felt the same way about Barnes.
“It was exciting to have a match featuring two of the best players in the country battling it out,” said Nelson. “Barnes is a great player and will get her points. She hit .300 and we felt good about that.”
As a team the Rams hit .244, while holding the Lobos to .195. The Rams however were out blocked 18-11, which raised some concern from Hilbert.
“It was almost nonexistent in the first three games,” said Hilbert. “Blocking’s an interesting thing. Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want it to. Statistically we didn’t get a lot of blocks, but I thought that especially starting in game four, our block did what it was supposed to do.”
The match left Nelson excited about the rising level of play in the conference.
“I’m excited about our conference,” said Nelson. “We have three or four teams really battling for position and maybe we can get four bids (to the NCAA tournament).”
Hilbert said this is the best team the team has played so far in the MWC.
“I think tonight I would say that match and that team is better than any mountain west teams we’ve played,” said Hilbert.
Fornstrom said that New Mexico has improved since the last time the two teams played each other.
“New Mexico played us tougher than they have every played us,” said Fornstrom. “I give them a lot of credit in Moby especially. They’re showing why teams should be afraid of them.”
Strauss said a win like Sunday’s over a conference team will better prepare the team for the rest of the season.
“It’s good for us. Winning like that is something we’ll look back on,” said Strauss. “It goes to show you that you can’t expect to win; you have to work hard at it. You have to expect the teams that we’re playing, since we have a target on our back, that they’re going to play really, really good.”
Hilbert picks up 300th win
The team and community will also be able to look back at its win over New Mexico as coach Hilbert’s 300th with the Rams.
“Me getting 300 wins; the honor really is that I’ve been able to stay at the same place for as many seasons as I have. In college coaching that’s rare anymore. I just feel fortunate to have been here that long (13 seasons).”
In his 13 seasons, the Rams have made 13 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and won 20 or more games. He has led the team to 10 conference championships since 1999 and been named conference coach of the year six times.
“It’s one of those things it’s nice for him to be recognized. He works really hard for us and does a lot for us on and off the court. It’s nice to see him accomplish something like that,” said Fornstrom.
Hilbert said the win was just like any other he has had.
“It feels the same way to get 299,” said Hilbert. “This one actually feels a little better because it was a lot harder match. When your team goes through a match like this it’s so good for them. It’s so wonderful to experience it.”
“In practice and preparation the last thing we’re doing is counting wins,” said Hilbert. “It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s a big deal. He’s just being modest.”