Nov 092006
 
Authors: Jeff Dillon

Eleven straight victories. Sole ownership of second place in the Mountain West Conference. Zero games lost in the past three matches. And their starting setter is back.

It’s safe to say that it’s a good time to be a Ram volleyball player.

The Rams face San Diego State today at 8 p.m. and Nevada-Las Vegas on Sunday at 4 p.m. Both games are on the road.

Red-hot play during the past eight weeks has kept the Rams (16-6, 10-2) in the hunt for their sixth Mountain West regular season title.

Last weekend, the team also got some help in the standings from one of its rivals.

Brigham Young, which was tied with CSU in second place in the conference standings for the past few weeks, lost at New Mexico on Nov. 3, catapulting the Rams into second place all by themselves.

Head Coach Tom Hilbert said he was surprised to see the Cougars lose, but said he expected the Rams to be in this position from the beginning, even following earlier losses at BYU and Utah.

“I’m surprised that we’re in (second place) by ourselves, but I’m not surprised that we ran the table since those matches,” he said. “That’s how good I thought we were.”

Considering the consistent play of the Rams since their last defeat on Sept. 16, there are probably a lot of people taking more notice of the team predicted to finish third behind BYU and Utah in the preseason coaches’ poll.

CSU ranks among the best in the league in hitting percentage (third), opponent hitting percentage (second), blocks (third) and kills (fourth).

The same can be said of the Rams’ players. Sophomore outside hitter Jaime Strauss is eighth in the conference in kills per game with 3.39.

Sophomore setter Ashley Fornstrom, ready to play after sitting out last Thursday’s match against Air Force due to a sore back, has the second-best assists average in the conference, with 12.59 per game.

Fornstrom said her back is “still sore” but is ready for her return. Strauss is happy to have one of the league’s best setters back.

“It’s a lot easier with her in there,” she said of Fornstrom. “We had to pass off the net a lot against Air Force. Ashley handles the ball really well and sets us all up.”

Hilbert credited Fornstrom’s ability to know where to put the ball for different hitters.

“There are things like tempo, communication and patterns in location consistency,” he said. “She has a feel of where the ball needs to be.”

CSU will need that advantage against these two foes on the road.

San Diego State (10-15, 4-9) may be seventh in the conference standings but they have proven to be a dangerous opponent. When the Aztecs faced the Rams on Oct. 14, they took the match to four games, all of which were fought extremely hard. Fornstrom had a season-high 67 assists in the Rams’ win.

Senior outside hitter Melanie Greene had 16 kills against the Rams that night and leads the Aztecs with 3.76 kills per game, fourth-best in the league.

Sunday’s match at UNLV won’t be an easy test for CSU, either. The Rebels (16-9, 7-6) are in fourth place in the Mountain West and have won two of their past three matches, including home wins over New Mexico and TCU.

CSU won the previous match on Oct. 13 in three games, but the first two games were decided by three and two points, respectively.

Junior Maria Aladjova is particularly dangerous on the Rebels’ side. She is second in the conference in kills per game with 4.18 and posted 14 in the teams’ earlier meeting this season.

These are the final matches for CSU before facing Utah and BYU, matches that could determine the regular season champion. A loss in either of these two matches would essentially eliminate the Rams from title contention.

“These matches are almost as big as BYU and Utah if we mess up,” said Strauss. “We won’t.”

Volleyball beat reporter Jeff Dillon can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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