CSU now shares the lead in a Mountain West Conference volleyball race that has become very unpredictable at the season’s midpoint.
The Rams had a weekend of ups and downs at home as they dropped a match to underdog BYU, but bounced back to beat No. 16 Utah.
Coming into the weekend, the Rams were undefeated in league play and enjoying a half-game lead over Utah and San Diego State. Now, they’re tied with SDSU at 6-1, and there are three other teams in the conference that are within striking distance.
“This certainly is shaping up to be a crazy conference race,” CSU coach Tom Hilbert said after the win over Utah. “This season is a lot different than recent ones in that there are a lot of teams that are playing very competitively right now, and there’s no clear cut leaders.”
The Rams went into Friday night’s match against BYU with the idea that it would be the easier of the two matches. BYU had different ideas and handed the Rams a tough five-game loss (30-19, 25-30, 27-30, 30-24, 12-15).
The Rams rolled in the first game as they hit .371, and appeared to have the match under control. They led the entire match and held the Cougars to a .077 hitting percentage.
From the very start of the second game, it seemed like the old clich/ of the teams switching jerseys had happened right before the eyes of the Moby crowd. The Rams suffered from a series of errors and missed opportunities while BYU took advantage by playing a controlled game.
The Rams hit .049 in the second game and had 21 errors. Though they out-killed the Cougars 16-9, the mistakes were too costly and the Cougars took the second game and the momentum into the break.
The Rams continued to have focus problems through the third game, though their attack was more consistent. The Cougars out-blocked the Rams however, which made up the point differential.
“Our blocking was just horrible,” Hilbert said after the match. “We just couldn’t get our hand over the net, and we weren’t focused.”
The Rams were able to refocus in game four and push for the fifth. The Rams came back from a four-point deficit to tie the final game 12-12, but gave up the last three points on a service error and two attack errors.
“(Tonight’s match) felt like being on a roller-coaster,” Rams middle blocker Katie Jo Shirley said.
Shirley finished the night with a .524 hitting percentage and her 16 kills was second best on the night behind Tess Rogers’ 17. Melissa Courtney recorded a match-high 60 assists and helped out with three blocks.
“I’m really proud of our team tonight,” BYU coach Karen Lamb. “They got down in the first game and made the decision to work their way out of it.”
BYU went on to beat Wyoming on Saturday night to complete a successful road trip. Wyoming topped Utah on Friday.
CSU’s loss to BYU made Saturday’s win even more. The Rams cut down on the mistakes and played a very disciplined match to beat Utah in four games (30-27, 30-19, 23-30, 30-21).
The first game was a seesaw battle with the 10 ties. Utah led most of the game, but the Rams put together a 4-1 run to win it.
“The first game was really key,” Hilbert said. “We got behind, but we hung in and hung in and were able to get it done.”
The Rams were never behind in the second game, and they held the Utes to a negative .026 hitting percentage. The Utes also struggled in the service game, giving up 11 service errors to produce an eight-point swing.
Utah was able to come back in game three on the strength of 18 team kills and four blocks. The Rams put up a .081 hitting percentage and were out-blocked for the first time in the match.
CSU put the match away in the fourth game with big performances from Michelle Knox and Andreya Downs.
“We learned a good lesson from last night,” said outside hitter Becky Sarauer. “We have to come back after winning the first game and keep playing hard.”
Rogers again finished with 17 kills. Knox had 14 kills, only one attack error, and led the team with five blocks. Courtney’s 45 assists put her over the 1,000 mark for her career, and she added 13 digs to complete a double-double.
“Everyone has been after us all season, and that is a tough challenge for a young team that hasn’t really proved itself,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said.
The Rams now look at the second half of the conference season, which will send them on road trips to Wyoming, Utah, Las Vegas, and San Diego.
“We have a lot left ahead of us. Five of our next seven games are on the road, and none of them are gimmies. And this team still has a lot to learn,” Hilbert said.
-Edited by Jon Ackerman and Josh Hardin