The first NCAA volleyball regional at Moby Arena did not pan out exactly as CSU head coach Tom Hilbert envisioned when the team made the bid to host, but it was nonetheless positive as nearly 3,000 fans filled the seats both Friday and Saturday nights.
“I envisioned it with about 3,000 more people and us playing, but this community is just great for volleyball,” Hilbert said. “I’m very proud that we got those people out; they really made it fun for these teams. I think it was a true neutral environment that the NCAA likes.”
No. 2 Stanford defeated No. 7 Hawaii Saturday night for the first regional championship at Ft. Collins to move on to the Final Four to face Texas. Nebraska and Penn State round out the Final Four.
Fans rooting for all four teams in Ft. Collins (Stanford, Hawaii, Purdue and Florida) were scattered throughout Moby wearing their respective colors. It was local residents and CSU fans, however, who filled much of the arena.
“This is neat, really wonderful,” said Loveland resident Duane Walter. “We were 12th in the nation in attendance, so it makes sense that they would have this here. We were a little surprised and thought more people would come out, but it’s wonderful.”
Duane and his wife, Lois, have been season ticket holders for eight years, and say their love for volleyball is a carryover from watching their daughters play in high school and college.
Senior Ashley Fornstrom, whose volleyball career ended with CSU’s loss to Florida in the second round, said Moby always has a good crowd for volleyball.
“They wouldn’t have picked Moby as a spot for a regional unless they believed we had a volleyball community,” Fornstrom said. “Every match this year we had 2,000 fans regardless if students showed up. People just like volleyball in Ft. Collins. It’s nice to know that I played in front of these fans. I can’t give back what they gave me.”
One of these fans is Ft. Collins resident Sarah Mitchell, who is a six-year season ticket holder. A sport lover, volleyball is Mitchell’s favorite.
“Volleyball is one of the better supported sports in the community,” said Mitchell. “I enjoy the athleticism and I think it is more entertaining and fast paced.”
Mitchell has traveled with Hilbert and the team and made trips to Utah and New Mexico to watch the Rams.
“It’s college sports and that’s what it’s all about,” said Mitchell.
CSU students Steven Kichler and David Favero also attended despite the Rams’ absence.
“We are the biggest volleyball fans of all and we came to watch some amazing volleyball,” said Kichler, a junior horticultural sciences major. “It is a privilege to watch a great team like Stanford.”
Favero, a senior soil and crop sciences major, recognized the significance of CSU hosting an NCAA regional for the first time.
“This is a historic event for the University and Ft. Collins, we’d be here regardless if CSU was in it or not,” Favero said. “This is a huge indication of where the volleyball program is in the nation. That we can be recognized on the national scale is great and hopefully we’ll be up there someday with Stanford or Penn State.”
Hilbert agreed and saw a lot of positives from the weekend.
“We brought a lot of commerce into this town; we got a lot of people coming from Denver. People are coming to visit the campus, visit Ft. Collins, so that’s really positive,” Hilbert said.
“We had four teams staying here and spending money and those things are all positive,” he said. “I also think it’s good for the sport of volleyball in this state to host an event like this.”
Julie Lichtman of Poway, California, whose daughter Cassidy is the starting setter for Stanford, said Ft. Collins was a good host.
“It’s been great, Ft. Collins has been a good host,” Lichtman said. “We’ve had no problems; no problems with the elevation, the weather has been good and we were excited to see the snow. My daughter, the first thing she texted me when the team got here was ‘There’s snow!’ She was really excited.”
So will CSU bid to host a regional again?
“We got to get ourselves in a peak year where we feel like we should make the top 16 and we’ll bid again,” said Hilbert. “It’s a difficult thing to do, it’s expensive, it requires a huge investment on the athletic department’s part. I don’t think we’re going to lose money on it, so that’s a positive.”
CSU losing its final three matches of the season may have cost them a shot at a top-16 seed, which would have made the path back to Ft. Collins easier. Fornstrom said it was emotional to watch from the stands.
“It’s hard, really hard,” said Fornstrom. “I got a little emotional walking in here into the stands. I haven’t been a fan at Moby watching a match since I was a senior in high school.”
“It really hit me when I watched the practices on Thursday, I mean there’s the people in our gym practicing, it’s like we ought to be in here right now. I started to feel really bad then,” Hilbert said. “I know how bad my players wanted to be here, but it wasn’t meant to be I guess.”
The regional marks the end of volleyball in Moby Arena until CSU’s next season in August, though the team will be without seniors Ashley Fornstrom, Tessa Nelson and Mekana Barnes.
“Volleyball is something I’ve been playing since I can remember. I remember playing in the park with my mom and my sister, playing two on two,” Fornstrom said. “That’s how I got started. Now that’s it over, it makes you wonder what I am going to do now.”
Volleyball beat writer Stephen Meyers can be reached at email@example.com.