On a campus where most of the sports talk revolves around football and basketball, it’s easy for CSU volleyball to take the back burner.
That won’t be the case this week.
CSU volleyball qualified for its 12th consecutive NCAA championship tournament appearance this past weekend by winning the Mountain West tournament title in Las Vegas.
It is the best such streak in the conference, with Utah next best with nine consecutive trips to the dance. It also reinforces CSU’s place as one of top programs in the country.
“We’re one of the top ten programs in the country in consecutive NCAA appearances,” said Rams’ junior right side hitter Tonya Mokelki. “It means a lot.”
Remarkable as the streak is, it almost met its end on Saturday night in the Mountain West championship match against ninth-ranked Utah.
Utah got off to a hot start and held a two game edge on the Rams. The Utes then climbed to a 20-11 lead in game three, leading head coach Tom Hilbert to believe the season was about to come to a close, without an NCAA appearance.
“Honestly, at that point I’m thinking about what speech I’m going to give my team in the locker room,” Hilbert said. “But then we went on a four-point run and (Utah) called a timeout, and I told our team to just play it one point at a time.”
“I told them we had to be more concerned with the momentum than the scoreboard.”
Clearly, Hilbert’s squad took that point to heart. Mokelki, senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney and sophomore middle blocker Mekana Barnes took over the third game, each recording key blocks in a 34-32 win.
Barnes finished with six kills and six blocks in third game, all part of what Hilbert called the “best match of her career.”
Barnes, however, was simply focused on the team’s accomplishment.
“It’s by far the best win of my career,” said Barnes. “To come back and when a match like that, it felt great.”
According to Mokelki, the team felt all along that they were capable of the momentum swing.
“We never had any doubt we could win,” Mokelki said. “We are fighters – it’s just something we do.”
Utah, which had yet to lose a conference match before Saturday, was clearly caught off guard by the Rams’ push, dropping the fourth and fifth games to the underdogs.
Not only did the win clinch CSU’s third MWC tournament title in the last four years, it also gave the Rams an automatic bid into the NCAA championship, something that probably would not have happened otherwise.
Despite the great accomplishment over the weekend for the team, the road only gets tougher when NCAA play opens up. CSU faces the defending NCAA Champion Washington Huskies, the sixth-seed nationally, Thursday night at 5 p.m. at Coors Events Center in Boulder.
But after what transpired in Las Vegas over the weekend, CSU is a team brimming with confidence, especially if they can keep the momentum from Saturday’s match going.
“The team that showed up in the fourth and fifth game against Utah has to show up against Washington,” said Mokelki.
If CSU wins Thursday, it would face the winner of Colorado-Boulder and New Mexico State on Friday.
Though some may still be talking about Sonny Lubick and Jason Smith this week, the spotlight will mostly be shining on a volleyball program that has established itself as one of – if not the most successful on the Colorado State campus.
Thanks, in part, to one of the greatest comebacks in program history.
“I told the team at the beginning of game four (against Utah) that we were going to win these next two games and it’s going to be a great story for the newspaper,” said Hilbert.
A great story, and the best part for the Rams is that the story has yet to be finished.
Volleyball beat writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.