Sep 142006
 
Authors: SEAN STAR The Rocky Mountain Collegian

How does the CSU volleyball team follow up a weekend playing the No. 13 and No. 18 teams in the country? They go back on the road to face the No. 19 and No. 21 teams in the country, of course.

After losing to California and Pepperdine in last weekend’s Golden Bear Invitational, the Rams open Mountain West Conference play this weekend with two huge matches.

Today, the Rams will take on 21st-ranked Utah at 7 p.m. Then on Saturday, they will travel to Provo to face 19th-ranked BYU, also at 7 p.m. These two teams were tied for the No. 1 ranking in the MWC preseason coaches’ poll.

It’s clear to the Rams just how important these road matches will be. Their 5-4 record is currently the sixth best in the conference. BYU is on top with a 7-1 record, while Utah is in fourth at 6-2.

Winning on the road against these two teams would make a giant statement as to where CSU will fit in this season. Katherine Whitney, a senior outside hitter, is excited for the Utah trip.

“The BYU/Utah road trip is always tough but we’re excited that we play them on the road first, and then they have to come back here at the end of the season,” Whitney said.

If the Rams need a confidence booster for these two matches, they can look in the history books. CSU has swept this Utah road trip in each of the last four seasons, and they have won their conference opener in the past seven. But the coaching staff knows this year could be the most challenging yet.

“It’s going to be the toughest weekend for us so far,” assistant coach Karrie Larsen said after practice Thursday. “We’ve played good teams this preseason though, and it’s prepared us for what we’ll see. We’d be happy with the previous results, the last (four) years we’ve come back 2-0.”

BYU has been impressive through eight matches, including a win over Stanford, a team currently ranked 7th in the nation.

BYU’s lineup may be the most talented in the conference. The Cougars have three of the six players named to the preseason all-conference team, including defending conference player of the year Lindsy Hartsock.

Utah also presents a tough task for the Rams, as they return five starters from last year’s MWC champion team, including sophomore outside hitter Airial Salvo. Salvo already has 122 kills in eight matches for the Utes.

If the past nine matches are any indication, CSU must win the attack battle to be successful. The Rams are 5-0 this year when leading in kills and also at least tied in hitting percentage. When they aren’t, they are 0-4.

But the Rams have to prepare for an aggressive pair of matches, especially against two teams on their home floors. Neither Utah nor BYU has lost at home yet this season.

Ram players such as outside hitter Jaime Strauss know that without victories this weekend, a conference crown will be tough.

“After playing these first games, these conference matches will really show us where we’re at,” Strauss said.

Simply stated, if the Rams can come up with a win or two this weekend in Utah, it would be an enormous accomplishment for a team seeking to define itself.

Staff reporter Sean Star can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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? Sophomore outside hitter Jaime Strauss is coming off being named to an all-tournament team for the second straight week. She was honored in the Golden Bear Invitational this past weekend and in the Coors Invitational the week before.

? Strauss is leading the Rams in kills, with 113 in nine matches. Next best for CSU is senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney, with 90.

? Libero Katelin Batten is currently on pace to set a school record in average digs for a freshman. She is averaging 3.32 digs per game; the record is 2.55 by Angela Knopf in 1998.

? Colorado connection: The only player on either Utah or BYU’s roster hailing from Colorado is Shannon Krug, a sophomore setter from Doherty High School in Colorado Springs.

? Both matches this weekend will be televised on tape delay on Sunday on CSTV’s “Sunday Night Spikes” starting at 2 p.m.

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