If the Rams hope to achieve their goal of a conference championship, they need wins this weekend at Texas Christian and New Mexico.
Last year, losses at these two locations played a big part in the team’s inability to claim the title.
“Everyone who was on the team remembers last year well,” said Rams senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney. “We don’t want that to happen again this year. It’s extremely important that we’re focused and that we prepare well.”
It has been a successful four-week stretch for CSU, who won their past seven matches, six of which were in Mountain West play. At 12-6 overall, and 6-2 in conference play, the Rams are currently sole owners of third place in the league standings.
But one year ago, the Rams found themselves in a similar position when they traveled to play UNM and TCU in mid-October. They lost to the Lobos in four games and to the Horned Frogs in five.
Though the team won seven of their remaining eight conference games, those two losses were enough to keep them from topping Brigham Young for the Mountain West regular season title.
This season, the team needs to avoid any more losses in order to challenge Utah (8-0) and BYU (7-1), who are first and second, respectively, in the conference.
Simply put, they cannot afford to have a repeat of last year’s matches against this weekend’s foes.
“Any road match can cost you a conference championship,” said Head Coach Tom Hilbert, who is just 47 wins short of the title as the winningest coach in the program’s history. “We discussed that this week. None of us should be foolish enough to think we’ll go there this year and not have any struggles.”
While planning for two tough matches, Hilbert is staying confident that his team’s focus will carry them to a pair of important victories.
“It comes from understanding ahead of time that it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “We have to figure out how to play through it. We can’t let those struggles affect us for entire games.”
CSU first faces TCU tonight at 8 p.m. in Fort Worth, Tex. The Horned Frogs (16-6, 4-4) have been competitive in conference play this season and are currently in fifth place.
In September, the Rams beat the Horned Frogs in three games, hitting .364 as a team and helping force TCU into 21 team errors. After that game, Hilbert said he thought TCU was a better team than it showed that night.
TCU senior middle blocker Anna Vaughn comes into the match with the fourth-best hitting percentage (.352) and the most total kills (305) in the conference so far this season.
Saturday night, CSU heads to Albuquerque for their second match of the season with UNM at 7 p.m. The Lobos (6-14, 2-6) have lost five straight matches, including getting swept by TCU on the road.
The Horned Frogs were also swept by the Rams in September, though freshman Anna Lehne, from Pueblo, had seven kills and a .400 hitting percentage. Sophomore outside hitter Jeanne Fairchild leads the team with 2.95 kills per game.
Both opponents will have to face one of the conference’s best defensive teams. CSU is ranked second in the conference in opposing hitting percentage, holding competition to an average of .147 this season.
The Rams also have sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes back in the lineup following an ankle injury. Barnes had 26 kills total last weekend in wins against Nevada-Las Vegas and San Diego State.
CSU will probably need both their defense and a healthy squad to compete in these two road matches. According to Whitney, the team has a conference title on their minds and knows how devastating a loss could be this weekend.
“(A championship) is still our goal, and every game counts toward that,” she said. “We have to go into it expecting to win. Your records don’t matter.”
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.