This is a make or break weekend for Ram volleyball. And that’s a good thing.
“I think we’re all pretty excited for these matches,” libero Lindsey Kerr said Wednesday. “They should both be very competitive, and those matches are the most fun to play.”
BYU and No. 16 Utah will be in town for what may possibly be the most important home stand of the conference season for the Rams, outside of the Mountain West tournament.
Though Utah comes in with the better record and the national ranking, the Rams are preparing just as hard for the Cougars, who bring a very tough game.
“Both of these teams have very good slide hitting, which is something that we have to be ready for,” head coach Tom Hilbert said.
Slide hitting is an attack in which the middle blocker moves behind the setter and to the outside to spike off one foot.
“These teams also bring a lot of balance and a lot of attackers,” Hilbert said. “I think that our players will get hyped and step up, and we’ll be ready to handle both of these teams.”
These matches are extremely important for the Rams because they could give them a solid conference lead at the halfway point. The Rams will have road trips to Las Vegas, Wyoming, San Diego and Utah in the second half of the season, so going in undefeated gives them a leg up.
Tonight, the Rams face BYU, which has had a rough non-conference season, suffering injuries and inconsistencies more damaging than the Rams have.
The Cougars were forced to red-shirt starting middle blocker Lexi Brown early in the season, and have also been without another middle blocker, Laurie Nielsen, for three weeks with a broken foot.
The Cougars come into Moby Arena with a 7-12 overall record and a 2-3 conference record.
“Injury and inexperience could be excuses for our record, but I’m not making any excuses,” BYU coach Karen Lamb said. “We want to win, but we also want to improve and come together as a team. The losses don’t bother me as much; as long as we’re competing hard and continuing to improve.”
Outside hitters April Varner and Allison Larson lead the Cougars’ offensive attack with over 180 kills apiece. Carrie Bowers has stepped up at middle blocker and leads the team in blocks with 104.
Though the Cougars come in battered, the Rams expect a very tough match from them as always.
“BYU’s offense is pretty fast,” CSU setter Melissa Courtney said. “They run a lot of double picks, and they are starting to get healthier. We know what they’ve been capable of in the past and we have to be prepared.”
BYU leads the all-time series against the Rams 42-12-1. The Rams have led the series 6-3 since coach Hilbert’s arrival in 1997 and have won the last two matches.
After what promises to be a very physical match against BYU, the Rams will have to regroup for Utah on Saturday.
Utah is the only nationally-ranked team in the MWC at No. 16. They are 14-4 overall this season and are 4-1 in conference play.
The Utes have four returning starters from last season’s team and the new additions are making an immediate impact.
“Utah’s outside hitters play a bigger role than they did last year,” Hilbert said. “This team has great balance, so there really isn’t one player on their team that we can focus on because any one of them can step up and cause us problems.”
Outside hitter Sylva Strzinkova leads the juggernaut with 4.02 kills per game and is second on the team with 160 digs. Strzinkova was named All-Conference last season and made the MWC All-Tournament team.
On the opposite side, freshman Sabine Shulz has added 160 kills and was named MWC player of the week last week.
Middle blocker Kim Turner has 240 kills and leads the team with 100 blocks this season to round out a very tough front row.
“Colorado State is tough at home – they know how to win. If we could go in and get a win, it would be huge,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said.
This match especially stands out for the Rams because Utah has won the last two matches, including the Mountain West Championship game.
“There’s definitely a little animosity from last season,” Kerr said. “But we’re mostly focusing on how important this match will be in our conference standing.”
Hilbert echoed the same thought.
“Winning this weekend will put us in the driver’s seat in the conference race, and it’s really important that we go out there and have good matches against these teams,” he said.
-Edited by Jon Ackerman and Josh Hardin