Normally offseason exhibition games in any sport are nothing more than glorified practices.
But Tuesday night, the CSU volleyball team has the rare opportunity to play a must-see match against top international talent.
The Rams are hosting Tianjin Bridgestone, the top team in the Chinese Volleyball League. Tianjin has won five consecutive and eight overall, league championships. They are coached by Wang Baoquan, who has coached the Chinese national team since 2008.
â€œI hope that the people who learn about (this game) and read about it understand what a novel thing this is,â€ CSU coach Tom Hilbert said. â€œWe donâ€™t get this opportunity very often to play a really high quality team from another country. This team is the best in the top professional league in China. Theyâ€™re very good. We expect this to be one of the most difficult teams we will play over the next year.â€
Playing such a high quality opponent will be made difficult by the fact that the Rams will only have one starter, middle blocker Megan Plourde, playing in the same position as last season.
There has been a massive shuffling of players due to the graduation of outside hitters Jacque Davisson and Danielle Minch, as well as defensive specialist Audrey Hemmings. The Rams setter of the last three years, Evan Sanders, must also be replaced after transferring to the University of Washington for her senior year.
â€œThroughout the spring weâ€™ve learned that we do have vacant spots on the court that need to be filled,â€ outside hitter Dana Cranston said. â€œItâ€™s not a choice; weâ€™re going to do it. The fact that we get to see this competition this early gives us such an advantage. Itâ€™s almost like a fall match in the spring.â€
One shift has seen Cranston and Katelyn Steffan move to the left side to replace Minch, a two-time Mountain West Conference player of the year.
The job of replacing Sanders at setter will come down to one of two freshmen, either Katie Rutherford or Deedra Foss.
According to Hilbert, Foss is currently leading the race to start and will see more of the action against Tianjin, but the competition is still open.
â€œThey both have to grow up in a hurry,â€ Hilbert said. â€œThey both have their ups and their downs. Itâ€™s about decision making and consistency right now with them. They both can do really good things.â€
While Tuesdayâ€™s match provides a good opportunity to get in synch with a whole new set of players, it is also going to provide a special moment for the players.
â€œI think itâ€™s amazing. Itâ€™s definitely something that not a lot of programs get the chance to do,â€ Steffan said. â€œItâ€™s kind of unreal. Itâ€™s very exciting and itâ€™s going to be a huge challenge for us, but I think weâ€™re ready for it.â€
Volleyball Beat Reporter Kevin Lytle can be reached at email@example.com.