MINNEAPOLIS — The remarkable run of the CSU volleyball team came to its end on Friday evening in Minneapolis, as the Rams fell to the University of Minnesota in the Regional semi-final of the NCAA Tournament.
The Rams surrendered leads in each of the first two sets, including a six-point advantage and three separate match points in the second, before ultimately dropping both frames to the Golden Gophers.
Heading into the locker room trailing by two sets in a hostile environment, the reasons for the Rams to go quietly were endless, yet their resolve remained unwavering.
“We competed very well in the first three games,” said CSU head coach Tom Hilbert. “It came down to end game in games one and two, and we didn’t do what we needed to do in the last three or four points.”
Though the Rams faced the unthinkable task of winning three straight sets on the road, the team rebounded with a third set victory, highlighted by senior Tessa Nelson’s set-clinching block.
“We’ve been playing in close games all season,” said Nelson, a Minnesota native. “It’s something that we’re used to.”
In the end, the two-set deficit proved too great for the Rams, who were out matched by the defensive-minded Gophers in the decisive fourth set.
“I thought that defensively we were a little bit better,” said Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert. “I’m really happy to be moving on, not much else to say.”
The Gophers’ defensive excellence was highlighted by its 86 digs as a team, including five separate players in double-digits. The defense of the Gophers help supplement an offense fueled by true freshman outside hitter Tabitha Love, who recorded a match-high 22 kills.
“She’s pretty good,” Hilbert said. “Especially at the end, in game four she smoked us.”
In their homecoming, both Nelson (Balaton, Minn.) and freshman middle blocker Megan Plourde (Somerset, Wisc.) enjoyed success, tallying 14 and 10 kills, respectively.
“It was a great place to come, I’m so glad we ended up (in Minneapolis),” Nelson said. “It was nice to be home, around the family and bring my teammates with.”
In the program’s 21st trip to the NCAA Tournament, the berth to the Sweet 16 marked only the fifth time in school history the Rams have advanced past the second round. Friday’s loss drops the Rams all-time Sweet 16 record to 0-5.
“We were trying to do the things that’ve been working for us all year,” Hilbert said. “And they weren’t working as much tonight.”
Though the Rams improbable season has come to an end, the future remains bright. Besides the departure of two starting seniors, the Rams will return conference player of the year Danielle Minch to defend her crown as the MWC’s supreme talent. Minch will be aided by the return of fellow outside hitter Jacque Davisson, setter Evan Sanders and middle blocker Megan Plourde. Continued progression is also expected from outside hitters Katelyn Steffan and Dana Cranston.
“Some of our younger players learned a great deal,” Hilbert said. “I look forward to next year.”
Friday’s match marked the end of two decorated careers at CSU in senior middle blocker Tessa Nelson, a two-time all MWC player, along with libero Katelin Batten, who won MWC Libero of the Year this season, and holds the all-time record for career digs at CSU.
“I’m not bitter at all about the loss tonight, it was a fun year,” said Batten. “I’m ending my career thinking, ‘Man, that was fun.’”
Volleyball beat reporter Joel Hafnor can be reached at email@example.com.