Aug 042009
 
Authors: Joel Hafnor

The CSU volleyball team will seek new leadership in 2009 after losing seniors Mekana Barnes, Ashley Fornstrom and Jaime Strauss from last season, but for a program that annually ranks among the nation’s best, there is no room for lowered expectations.

The Rams have their sights set on a 15th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and look to reclaim the Mountain West Conference regular season title.

The Rams are projected to place second in the conference this year, according to the coaches poll released at the end of July, finishing behind Utah.

“We have a very big, very physical, team this year,” said Tom Hilbert, who has been head coach for more than a decade.

That physicality starts up front with 6-foot-2-inch middle blocker Tessa Nelson, a senior who shares pre-season MWC Player of the Year honors with New Mexico’s Jade Michaelsen.

“There are a lot of good players in this conference,” Nelson said. “I feel honored that they chose me.”

Nelson was a member of the Mountain West All-Conference team last season.

“It’s going to be a five-team race,” said Hilbert, who has led the Rams to six MWC Championships in the last 10 years. “The traditional top-three (CSU, BYU, Utah) all lost significant players, while New Mexico and UNLV basically return everyone.”

CSU has grown into one of the nation’s finest programs during Hilbert’s tenure, amassing a record of 243-67, including a staggering 171-21 advantage at Moby Arena.

“The girls take a lot of pride in playing well at home,” Hilbert said. “It’s a big time atmosphere, which makes it hard on the opposition.”

The Rams enter the 2009 season riding a 29-game home winning streak that includes undefeated stints during both 2007 and 2008.

“The fans make it special,” said senior libero Katelin Batten. “Moby is a place you don’t want to play as an opponent.”

Still, for all the success the Rams had at home last season, they struggled on the road, finishing with a 6-6 record away from Moby. The team also stumbled a bit down the stretch, finishing just 3-5 in its final eight matches.

“We need to embrace what the team did well last year while working on finishing the season stronger,” Hilbert said.

Players to keep an eye on this year include sophomore setter Evan Sanders, who will take over the role left by Fornstrom, and freshmen Tori Brummett and Dana Cranston look to be two potential breakout candidates.

Despite the loss of the “big three” –/Barnes, Fornstrom and Strauss — the Rams refuse to see this as a rebuilding year. Instead, they will look for new stars to rise and continue the path of success that has become a CSU colloquialism.

“Our goal every year is to make the NCAA Tournament,” Batten said. “We have a good deal of experience with three seniors and a large group of juniors. We believe we have what it takes.”

The Rams begin their season on Aug. 28 at Moby Arena when they host Pepperdine in the Asics Classic.

Volleyball beat reporter Joel Hafnor can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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