Stands saturated with green T-shirts, popcorn, nachos and sodas echoed chants of “Our House” throughout the 2,750 person-filled Moby Arena Friday as the CSU volleyball team advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
“What we did was come out and play with a lot of aggression,” said head coach Tom Hilbert. “When it came down to it, we played with great maturity here in our gym, and we stayed aggressive. We knew that if we played tentatively, we would be punished by Washington because they’re too good.”
CSU took on the sixth-seeded team in the tournament, Washington, for a chance to play at least once more this season, and made the most of it.
The Rams came out blasting as they captured the first two sets 25-16 and 25-22. However, the Huskies had too much pride to allow a sweep in their final match of the season and won the third 25-21.
Altitude was named as a contributing factor in Washington’s poor performance while the ball was in the air, and Hilbert said there was a point in the third when the “Oh, shoot, they’ve figured this out” factor came into play.
But the crowd got rowdy, the players re-charged and the Rams produced three scoring runs of more than four points on their way to a 25-19 win and a trip to the Sweet 16 against Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“I think it was something we always thought about but weren’t sure how close at hand it really was until we got here,” said CSU junior Jacque Davisson. “We just played out of our minds tonight, and I’m just so proud of our seniors.”
After upsetting Washington, the Rams are now heading north to the great state of wind, cold and snow, Minnesota, for a match that could end up seeing a heap of CSU fans. Seniors Tessa Nelson and Katelin Batten, as well as redshirt freshman Megan Plourde, all have families located within driving range of the match on Dec. 11.
“I’m so excited I’m shaking,” Nelson said. “That was perfect, and I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year. I have more than 50 family members in Minnesota that will probably be there.”
The extra support should be comforting to a team that gave so much credit to playing in front of a large and menacing crowd. The Rams fed off the energy at Moby Arena Friday, and though two Washington players denied the crowd had anything to do with their less-than-par performance, the stat sheet conveys a different message.
The Huskies committed 16 service errors to the Rams’ three. Washington was clearly off its game as it averaged just a tad over nine errors throughout the season and its attack percentage fell to .255 from .288 while dealing with an animated crowd inside the doors of Moby.
“I can’t say enough about the crowd and the support of this community,” Hilbert said. “That is as good an environment as you will see anywhere in the country, and I am so proud to coach here and to give our players that kind of experience.”
Big games need big time players. Hilbert stressed the same word that has been associated with this team all season, “maturity,” saying focus and a short memory were the deciding factors in a match that meant so much.
Davisson and fellow junior and CSU kill leader Danielle Minch both ascended to the occasion as they posted 13 and 19 kills, respectively.
After the third set was over, Davisson said to her team, “we can do it,” and the two combined for nine kills in the final set including Davisson’s final smack down that opened Washington’s tear ducts and the door to next round.
Setter Evan Sanders methodically passed the ball in their directions and what looked like blocked shots turned into powerful spikes through fingers attached to purple jerseys.
“Jacque comes up with some critical plays at critical times, which I really like,” Hilbert said. “We try to set up line-ups where (Minch) is in the front row the most times. She is a little more terminal than Jacque is.”
Prior to the Washington match, Hilbert had already entered the next week’s practice schedule into his computer in anticipation of a win. He has yet to enter the schedule for after the Sweet 16 but only because he doesn’t know if finals week could affect the schedule.
But what’s crystal clear is the trip the Rams will be making: The Sweet 16.
Volleyball beat reporter Keith Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.