Sep 072006
 
Authors: JEFF DILLON The Rocky Mountain Collegian

“Awesome.”

That’s how senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney titled this week of practice for CSU volleyball. It’s good timing, considering the Rams are about to face three NCAA tournament participants from 2005, two of whom are ranked in the top 25.

But with a week of productive preparation, Whitney says this team is ready for what they’ll face this weekend in the Golden Bear Invitational at California-Berkeley.

“We really worked hard on what we need to do (this weekend), which is defending their outside hitters,” Whitney said.

The past two weekends saw the Rams start off 1-2 in the Hilton Classic, then turn around a week later by going 3-0 to win the Coors Invitational. Defensive problems against an aggressive Texas A&M and Missouri State both resulted in losses. But the Rams hope this week’s practice shored up any such problems.

“We’re definitely getting better defensively,” said Head Coach Tom Hilbert. “If these games become about who hits harder, they win.”

Besides defense, one of the biggest things the Rams are hoping to sort out at Cal this weekend is cutting down errors. CSU has, at times, been haunted by serving and hitting errors in their 4-2 start.

“We’re trying to be more accurate with our serving targets,” Hilbert said. “We can keep in games with good ball-handling.”

If ever there was a time for the Rams to weed out the errors, this would be it. CSU faces several tough tasks in the three opponents they will face this weekend.

First up, at 7 p.m. today, is Pac-10 powerhouse Cal, currently ranked 13th in the country.

Hilbert expects Cal to be extremely athletic and a tough match-up. This match also has a CSU connection, as the Golden Bears’ current head coach, Rich Heller, preceded Hilbert at CSU from 1983 to 1996, posting 299 wins, the most for Rams volleyball. Hilbert is in second place with 245 wins.

“He really built this program, so I have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” said Hilbert. “He took Cal out of the basement and now they can compete for the Pac-10.”

After Cal, it won’t get much easier for CSU. The Rams will face 18th-ranked Pepperdine at noon on Saturday, followed by American at 5 p.m.

Pepperdine swept CSU on the road a year ago. American, a lesser known team from the Patriot league, won’t be an easy task either, according to Hilbert.

“Everyone looks at American and thinks it’s just an automatic win, but they won’t be,” said Hilbert. “They have a great program there.”

Despite the caliber of all three teams the Rams face this weekend on the road, they aren’t nervous about it, Whitney said.

“We definitely want to go in and win every time, no matter who we’re playing,” she said. “We are prepared for the teams we’re facing.”

Freshman middle blocker Tessa Nelson said the Rams will focus on themselves, not the caliber of their opponent.

“We have worked on the things that we can control, against anyone we play,” she said. “We can play defense against all these teams.”

If the Rams can succeed at Cal this weekend, it will set them up nicely for the opening of their conference schedule. They open at Utah on Sept. 15, then face BYU in Provo the following day.

“We better be ready for this weekend,” Hilbert said. “We follow this with a bunch of tough conference games. We’re looking at this as a chance to prepare for BYU and Utah.”

If the mood from this week’s practices carries over to this weekend’s matches, it could be a very positive turn for the Rams. Wins over any of these three teams would speak volumes about their ability to compete not only in the Mountain West but with anyone in the country.

In a word, it would be awesome.

Staff writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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