Wednesday, the CSU volleyball team breathed heavily as they hurried off their home floor past a row of bananas, granola, red delicious apples and bottles of water into the adjacent soggy grey hallway for media interviews.
They needed to make room for three schools that will be competing with in the NCAA Tournament today and Friday.
The Rams are familiar with the situation.
This years marks the 15th consecutive year CSU has graced the national champion determining tournament. But this time, they will have the advantage of playing in front of their dedicated home-crowd followers.
“It feels really good to be at home,” said senior middle blocker Tessa Nelson. “(We) couldn’t have asked for a better turnout.”
Good venue, difficult opponent.
The Rams will face off against Middle Tennessee State (25-9, 15-2 Sun Belt – a team that is in its fourth consecutive year in the tournament – tonight at 7:30.
The Blue Raiders’ offense is the main focus of the Rams weekly game plan as they run a fast paced, spreadable offensive. Rams head coach Tom Hilbert said Middle Tennessee is the fastest offense CSU will see this season.
“It’s pretty innovative,” Hilbert said. “They’ve got some good athletes. They kind of fly under the radar, but they have a good team. The ball goes directly from the setter’s hand to the attacker’s hand, everywhere. Every zone is going to be a task for us.”
That prolific and speedy offense has allowed the Raiders to produce 335 more kills this season than their opponents.
Led by 5-foot-9 Ashley Mead’s 405 kills, the Raiders have three players with more than 300 kills to the Rams’ one.
The Blue Raiders also reached 25 early and have only been pushed to five sets thrice this season, winning two of those matches. CSU has gone the distance five times, losing only one.
The consensus among the team is that the Blue Raiders are good, but the Rams aren’t so shabby.
In fact, for each aspect that gives one team an edge, the other squad has an answer. Each team lost its season finale-edge to CSU since they haven’t lost two in a row since dropping the first two matches of the season.
However, Middle Tennessee State’s head coach Matt Peck has yet to lose a first round match. Each team has put up a winning streak of more than 10 this season; CSU with 12, and Middle Tennessee with 11.
Perusing the statistics and accomplishments of each team seems to end with a wash, so the Rams are expecting worthy competition from a team that has comparable offensive firepower and is accompanied by a solid defensive counterpart.
“They’re good, and we have to ready for them,” said senior libero Katelin Batten. “One of the keys is staying really relaxed. (We have to) see what’s going on early, otherwise they’re going to run us all over the place.”
The Rams will lean on their home crowd and the brutalizing swing of outside hitter Danielle Minch, who leads the lineup with 375 kills, 80 of which came in her last four matches.
“We all know what we have to do in order to get the job done,” Minch said. “(I will) just have to play how I play and keep my errors low. With a team like this, we have to stay focused on the little things.”
Details may be the determining factor of this match but other details may influence who attends. All-session student tickets can be purchased for $6 and come with a free concession voucher.
Volleyball Beat Reporter Keith Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.