Nearly a month ago I had some serious concerns on whether or not this yearâ€™s volleyball team had what it took to be a true NCAA Tournament contender.
They were fresh off an embarrassing loss to the University of Wyoming, a team the Rams had not lost to in 26 matches â€”14 years. CSU was riding a five-match winning streak and had a two sets to none lead, but were beaten. They had also lost to the University of Denver for just the second time ever. Leadership was lacking and self-forced errors were frequent and untimely.
But now, following a seven-match stretch of wins (all sweeps by the way), the Rams have proven theyâ€™re ready for the Mountain West Tournament and beyond.
CSU has found the leaders it just didnâ€™t have earlier this season. At the front is the Ramsâ€™ lone senior, Katelyn Steffan. Steffan has shined the brightest when it mattered the most. She ranks first in the conference in kills per match with 4.10 in conference play and first in the conference for all matches with 3.9 kills a contest.
While Steffan has solidified the Ramsâ€™ attack from the outside, junior Megan Plourde has anchored the middle of the court for CSU. Plourde leads the conference in blocks and has 12 more blocks than second place Erin Kirby of Wyoming.
In fact the Rams have all stepped up during the home stretch of conference play. Tori Brummett, Brieon Paige and Steffan are three of the top four in hitting percentage in the MW and freshman setter Deedra Foss ranks second in the conference in assists per match with 11.05.
The Rams dipped out of the top-25 for a week, but have made the climb back to No. 24 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll and will continue to launch up the polls as long as the team maintains its winning ways.
CSUâ€™s current form earned the program its third straight regular-season MW title, and the Rams have done it by going up against the best the conference has to offer â€” and dominating.
â€œItâ€™s great to win a third-straight title,â€ CSU coach Tom Hilbert said. â€œIt says a lot about the program we have here at CSU and the particular athletes we recruit. We feel like we know the type of athletes we need to win this conference, and we are patient with those athletes and we develop them into champions.â€
The Rams beat Texas Christian University (second in the MW) convincingly back on Oct. 15 three sets to none and third place San Diego State University twice, 3-1 and 3-0.
CSU has just two matches remaining in the season before the ever-important MW Tournament. The team that takes the tournament title also receives the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so itâ€™s crucial CSU continues to peak until the end of the season.
And they will. The Rams have two games left against TCU and New Mexico before the tournament, both of which are wins. TCU may be second in the conference, but have an okay 8-4 conference record and New Mexico is right at .500 in conference games at 6-6.
The Rams have proven they are now ready to handle the toughest opponents the MW can throw at them and have no reason not to win the conference tournament and take the automatic bid.
The NCAA Tournament is an entirely different animal, and CSU has traditionally struggled to advance much further than the second round, but the way this teamâ€™s playing, anything is possible.
The Rams already proved theyâ€™re capable of beating the top teams in the country when they upset No. 5 (now No. 2) Nebraska and seven consecutive sweeps is no easy task, no matter what conference you play in.
I had my concerns, but theyâ€™ve made me a believer. So Iâ€™m sayinâ€™ thereâ€™s a chance.
Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at email@example.com.Follow @cristiller