At 8:30 this morning the CSU volleyball team will have had breakfast at their hotel. Then, a mandatory study session, a light snack and some practice. A 3:30 pre-game meal and a bus ride later they’ll watch two other teams play before meeting with head coach Tom Hilbert at 4:50.
At 6 p.m., the Rams will face off against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-8) for a chance to do what the CSU volleyball program has never done: make it to the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a great reward for a season well played,” Hilbert said. “We have a path in front of us that’s not impassable.”
The Rams are coming off one of the biggest upset wins in history after beating sixth-seeded Washington 3-1 Saturday. Now the Rams are in Minneapolis playing in the Golden Gophers’ kitchen for their opportunity to extend their season by at least one game.
Word around the coaches’ campfire is Minnesota has a good fan base, but the environment is less intimidating and more fun. Possibly good news for a CSU team playing on the road for the first time since Nov. 17.
After feeling the pulsing atmosphere of their match against Washington, the Rams know fans can influence failure, but what the green and gold are really focusing on is their foes.
Hilbert said the Golden Gophers offer a lot of size on their side of the net. 6-foot-2 middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer is a slide hitter who recorded 385 kills with a .398 percentage this season and should receive a little extra attention from CSU.
“They’re big, but so are we,” Hilbert said. “It’s going to come down to the serving and passing in the game. Who will disrupt who? We have to play aggressively. That’s our whole goal.”
Serving and passing is what got CSU to where they are. But now the Rams are at a lower elevation than the comfortable altitude of the Rocky Mountains. Serves won’t float, dropping in when the Rams are used to them sailing out. And Minnesota uses severs who smack the ball to the back court making “out” calls for CSU all the more difficult to read.
And then there’s passing.
“Passing is always critical. It’s what our offense is based around, and if we don’t have good passing, then we can’t run the plays we’re very effective running,” said setter Evan Sanders.
Movement and tempo. That’s what Hilbert said he wanted. He wants Sanders to set the ball and keep a pace that can relax the Rams and unbalance Minnesota. She’ll be setting to outside hitters Jacque Davisson and Danielle Minch.
The two lead the Rams in kills and both women have proven that a ball set in their direction is a set well spent. But it’s going to be up to Sanders to change it up and distribute her balls to other members of the team.
“We’ve got to spread it a little bit and be faster,” Hilbert said. “We can’t just throw it high all the time. We can do that sometimes in the Mountain West because we’re bigger than those teams. But we’re not bigger anymore.”
The Rams have nothing to lose. This was supposed to be a re-building year. A year without the “big three.” A year to get back to basics. There were no expectations for this team. No reason to believe they were capable of going this far.
And the Rams remember.
“Just taking it one step at a time,” said senior libero Katelin Batten. “It’s already been a dream come true, really. Everyone thought it was going to be a rebuilding year for us, and it’s turned out to be a record-setting year. I just want to keep it going. We really have no pressure on us, so we just want to go and play as hard as we can and see how far we can go.”
They may be able to go exceptionally far. If CSU conjures a victory, they will play the winner of the Florida State vs. Kentucky match. Both teams represent winnable games for a CSU squad who can play well. The Rams are 7-2 on the road this season.
The women of the CSU volleyball team see this as a golden opportunity to excel their team and the program. A chance to move up and move on from the low expectations associated with them all season. But Hilbert had a message for his team and Ram nation.
“Lots of things have to happen in order to do this,” Hilbert said. “What I want to tell (everybody) is not to take it for granted.”
Volleyball beat reporter Keith Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.