In the Mountain West Conference, every road trip for the CSU Rams is in pairs, except for the short jaunts to Air Force or Wyoming.
Usually the road trip that stands out as the toughest for CSU is the visit to Utah and Brigham Young, but with BYU down this year and other conference foes stepping up, CSU head coach Tom Hilbert doesn’t think that is the case this season.
“This road trip, because both New Mexico and TCU are improved, I think it is harder than the BYU-Utah road trip. We have to get just as fired up, prepared, and ready to play as we do at any place on the road if we want to sweep it, which is our goal,” said Hilbert.
The No. 13 Rams start the imposing trip tonight in Albuquerque (the MTN, 7 p.m.) against the Lobos, who have one of the most dominant players in the MWC — senior hitter Jeanne Fairchild. Fairchild had 27 kills against the Rams earlier this season in a tough come-from-behind 3-2 CSU victory.
“Fairchild is a great player and really athletic, but they also have a really good setter (in sophomore Jade Michaelsen) who can move the ball around and trick you a little bit,” Hilbert said.
The Lobos (18-5, 8-4 MWC) will find a way to set Fairchild often, and if CSU wants to have success, they will have to find a way to slow her down.
“We have to force her to hit in uncomfortable situations, whether we’re going to serve really tough and get them out of their system, or we’re just going to take risks and plant all of our blockers on Fairchild to give her a different look,” said senior outside hitter Jamie Strauss, who says she is clear of any effects from a concussion she suffered two weeks ago.
Hilbert stated that another way to get Fairchild out of the game is for the Rams to impose their style onto the New Mexico, by forcing the ball away from the Lobos middle attackers, and making it an outside hitter’s match, where he feels the Rams will have an advantage.
CSU has dropped just one match on the road this season, at UNLV, a game where the Hilbert said his team learned they have to do a better job of being “terminal” and burying their kills when they are given the opportunity.
With four tough road games left and only a half game lead in the MWC standings, the Rams know that they have to improve their play away from Moby Arena if they want to reach their goal of a MWC championship.
Additionally, getting these big road wins will better set the Rams up for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have to deal with different environments and learn to play in uncomfortable positions,” said freshman opposite hitter Katelyn Steffan, who sat out last Saturday’s victory over Air Force with an injured knee, but is glad to be back in the lineup.
Both TCU, who the Rams play Saturday, and New Mexico boast great home court advantage, and it isn’t all due to fans, Strauss said.
“They are tough in different ways, because New Mexico has more fans than TCU does, but the lighting at TCU is much different. TCU’s gym is really, really small, so you feel that the people that are there are right on you.”
Volleyball beat writer Matthew Pucak can be reached at email@example.com.