No setter, no senior, big problem.
Going into the weekend, the CSU volleyball team looked forward to some good competition from some very good teams.
At the end of the weekend, after losing two of three matches, the Rams came out of the Coors Classic learning some very tough, but valuable lessons. After being swept by Nevada Friday night, CSU bounced back to sweep Gonzaga on Saturday, before getting swept again by Cincinnati.
“I think this is something that we can look back on for experience,” sophomore Andreya Downs said.
The reason the Rams will be able to use this weekend as a learning experience is because they were forced to play two matches without setter Melissa Courtney, and half a match without senior middle blocker Michelle Knox. Both were lost to injury over the course of the tournament, and it is not yet known how long they’ll be out.
The Rams began with a full roster on Friday night, but were dealt a tough blow by the Nevada Wolfpack.
Playing inconsistently throughout the night, the Rams never seemed to develop any rhythm against the Wolfpack. The contest was close through the first game, but Nevada’s Michelle More soon took control of the match, and Nevada swept the Rams at home for the first time since 1997 (27-30, 25-30, 25-30).
Finishing with 23 kills and a .463 hitting percentage on the night, More disrupted the Rams in the middle and the Rams never got a solid attack going. Laura Wooley chipped in on the outside with 11 kills and co-led the Wolfpack with nine digs.
Katie Jo Shirley was the only Ram player to reach double digits in kills on the night with 11. The Rams served with some consistency, but their passing was shaky as they committed 11 service return errors.
“This was a very non-competitive effort for our team,” CSU head coach Tom Hilbert said. “I’m disappointed in the lack of stepping up, and this is a case where we just need to look in the mirror and say, ‘We need to play better.'”
As if the performance from Friday night wasn’t troubling enough, the Rams learned early Saturday that Courtney would not be able to play because of back spasms that had bothered her during the match against Nevada.
The loss of Courtney proved to be a big challenge because it would force outside hitters Downs and freshman Tess Rogers to take over the setting duties. It would also require increased play from freshmen Casey Bauer and Melissa Dennett, who had little experience in high-pressure situations.
The inexperience was evident in the early match against Gonzaga. Luckily for the Rams, Gonzaga was 1-9 coming into the game, and gave them an easy match-up to learn the new system.
The games were sloppy, and the Rams definitely looked like a team that had been taken out of their game plan, but they were able to sweep the Bulldogs in three games, 30-27, 30-28, 30-28.
Knox displayed strong leadership throughout the match and led the Rams with 11 kills. Because Rogers and Downs were learning to play in rotations that they had not previously been exposed to, there was often confusion and poor timing in the Rams’ play.
However, the Rams showed improvement in the nightcap against Cincinnati, playing with more discipline and making fewer mistakes. But they were not able to stop the Bearcats’ attack. Cincinnati won the match in three games, 30-25, 30-26, 30-16.
Both the first and second games were competitive in the early going, but the Bearcats were able to pull away toward the end.
With the Rams trailing 18-15 in the second game, Knox’s two kills pulled them to within one point. On the next play, Knox went up to block a spike by Cincinnati’s Bonita Wise. The two collided at the net, and Knox sprained her ankle on the way down. She was assisted off the court and would not return.
The Rams held on for a few points, but Cincinnati eventually put them away. The Rams ran out of gas in the third game and finished the tournament with a 1-2 record.
Cincinnati got good performances from outside hitters Julie DuPont (17 kills) and Wise (10 kills, three blocks).
Downs and Rogers adapted to their roles well against Cincinnati. Downs finished with 10 kills and 18 assists. Rogers had 14 kills and 16 assists, and played the entire match with a migraine headache.
“We’ve got a tough group,” said Hilbert following the Cincinnati match. “For as young as they are, to throw them into a situation like we did today and for them to lay it on the line and not care what people think, I’m very proud.”
Cincinnati took first place in the tournament, winning all three of its matches. Nevada followed at 2-1 and CSU took third.
Shirley was the lone Ram on the all-tournament team for her defensive performance.
“Katie Jo did some of the best passing she’s done all year,” Hilbert said. “Her team needed her help back there and she stepped up.”
Other All-Tournament members include Cincinnati’s DuPont, Wise and Trish Ladusaw, and Nevada’s Laura Wooley.
Michelle More won the tournament MVP, totaling 66 kills in the three matches. She was more concerned, however, about getting her team, which has never been nationally ranked in the top 25, than her own performance.
“For some reason, every year we’re underrated,” More said. “I guess we need to keep knocking teams out of the top 25.”
The Rams are back on the road next week. They travel to San Diego where they will face Columbia, Robert Morris and the University of San Diego. Their next home match is Oct. 4, when they host conference rival San Diego State.