Not many teams could lose four starters, including two all-conference players, and still be picked to win the Mountain Westâ€¦unless theyâ€™re named the CSU Rams.
Danielle Minch, the two-time MW Player of the Year, Jacqui Davisson and Audrey Hemmings all graduated at the end of last season, while setter Evan Sanders transferred to the University of Washington.
The Rams only have one senior, opposite hitter Katelyn Steffan, and four juniors on the team, but that doesnâ€™t mean it is young. Ten players on the active roster have taken a redshirt season to learn the game, so they just lack live-game experience.
â€œEveryone has it in the back of their minds that this is a rebuilding year for us, but the competitions in practice make us a better team,â€ Steffan said. â€œThey donâ€™t see the behind-the-scenes stuff, and they have doubts about how good weâ€™re going to be.â€
In addition, five players are playing new positions this season.
â€œThe key is to get people to understand their roles and how theyâ€™re going to be most efficient in those roles,â€ coach Tom Hilbert said.
The primary battle over the spring and summer practice session was to see who would start at the setter position, and recently Hilbert decided to go with redshirt freshman Deedra Foss.
â€œShe just emerged as the one,â€ he said. â€œPlayers were consistently hitting better percentages off of her sets in practice.â€
Though Foss will start, the team will still use fellow redshirt freshman Katie Rutherford in certain packages and rotations as well. The competition between the two throughout the offseason was heated, but friendly.
â€œWeâ€™ve both been working really hard on the little things that we need to work on,â€ Foss said. â€œI think that has made us both better.â€
Foss said she felt really confident in the tempo on her sets to the outside, as well as out of system sets when the players are scrambling.
Despite not having as many individual accolades as Minch, Jacqui Davisson was the glue that held the Rams together last season and an important emotional leader.
Hilbert said there isn’t really anyone that fills that role individually, but the responsibility to lead has spread out amongst the team.
â€œIzzy (Gaulia) and Dana (Cranston) are probably our most emotional players and are really trying to fill that role,â€ he said. â€œBut you donâ€™t have to have that big emotional leader to win.â€
The loss of defensive specialist Audrey Hemmings seemingly left a void at the libero position, but Hilbert has complete faith in junior Izzy Gaulia.
â€œIzzy might be the most improved player on the team,â€ Hilbert said. â€œIâ€™m very pleased with the things sheâ€™s doing for us.â€
Even with the amount of talent on his roster, Hilbert realizes there will be some growing pains and his team will need to fight through them.
â€œIn the process of learning theyâ€™re going to make mistakes and they need to learn the consequences of them,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s not going to be an easy year for us. Itâ€™ll be a fun, challenging year.â€
Volleyball Beat Reporter Kyle Grabowski can be reached at email@example.com.