Stopped at Sweet 16

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Dec 162009
 
Authors: Joel Hafnor

MINNEAPOLIS – Friday evening’s regional semifinal loss to the University of Minnesota marked the conclusion of the 2009 CSU volleyball season, ending with it the decorated careers of both Katelin Batten and Tessa Nelson.

Though both seniors achieved all-conference status this season, the two have very little in common.

The 6-foot-2 Nelson, who was recruited out of Balaton, Minn. in 2005, established her green and gold career around her defensive presence at the net, recording 514 career blocked shots.

At 5-foot-5, Batten made up for her lack of size with unchallenged effort, impacting the game with set-altering digs. Recruited out of Grandview High School in 2006, Batten ends her career with the Rams as the all-time leader in career digs with 1,783.

“This season has been the most fun of my time here,” said Batten, who recorded a career-high 479 digs in her final season. “It exceeded expectation. I’m not bitter at all about our loss.”

After four years of dominant home court play in which the Rams went 55-7, the seniors lost a match they thought would be their last at Moby Arena, in a Nov. 28 defeat to New Mexico State.

“I wanted the seniors to go out remembering the way we are supposed to play at Moby,” said junior Danielle Minch, after the loss to NMSU. “If we go deep in the tournament, it will be better for them.”

One day later, the Rams were selected to be one of 16 sub-regional hosts in the NCAA Tournament, affording the seniors one more shot to end their Moby careers the right way.

The Rams managed to escape the first round of the Tournament against a very capable Middle Tennessee State in five sets, setting up a second round showdown with the heavily favored Washington Huskies.

“We’re going to have to really find some extra energy to terminate some balls against the University of Washington,” said head coach Tom Hilbert, prior to the UW match. “Stranger things have happened.”

What ensued was perhaps the biggest victory in program history, as the Rams dismantled one of the proudest programs in the country, proving their place among the nation’s elite.

As the Rams embraced at center court beneath a sea of roaring fans, there was no bracket, no ranking and no points to be won; on that night, the Rams were queens of the world.

“All the hard work we put into the season ended really positively for us,” Nelson said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year and experience.”

For a season relatively marginal in expectation, the improbable Rams proved time and again their incredible mettle. In the maximum five set matches, the Rams were perfect 5-0 this season.

“I think some of our younger players learned a great deal this year,” Hilbert said. “They will be very comfortable going into very competitive situations next year.”

The 2009 Rams won more conference games (15) than ever before en route to a Mountain West Conference championship. The team amassed five all-conference players, including conference player of the year Danielle Minch.

Though comparisons are hard to be drawn between different eras, the 2009 team accomplished as much, if not more, than any CSU team in school history.

With another year under the tutelage of Hilbert, who celebrated his 500th career victory this season along with his seventh MWC Coach of the Year award, the future couldn’t look better for Rams volleyball.

“Having (Minch) getting better with every day,” said Hilbert, gesturing toward the MWC player of the year following CSU’s loss at Minnesota, “I’ll sleep easier over the Christmas holiday.”

Though it will undoubtedly take some time to fill the void left by two of the greatest players in program history, the Rams’ underclassmen are as capable as any in the nation.

“We lose some great leadership and players. That is something that will have to be filled,” Hilbert said. “But I look forward to next year.”

The next generation of Ram legends will begin in the middle with Megan Plourde, who ascended to all-conference stature in her freshman season. Much will also be expected of Katelyn Steffan, Dana Cranston and Evan Sanders in the coming years, as Hilbert continues to build the juggernaut program known as CSU volleyball.

Volleyball Beat Reporter Joel Hafnor can be reached at sports@collegian.com.

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