Perennial Mountain West favorite Colorado State has no seniors.
But the Rams are still the team to beat in the league.
“I think we have some nice players in certain positions,” said coach Tom Hilbert, who enters his 30th season as a head coach, his 22nd in Fort Collins.
While CSU lost two big offensive weapons in outsides Jasmine Hanna (343 kills) and Sanja Cizmic (242), the Rams are not hurting, not a team that includes talented setter Katie Oleksak, the MW player of the year in 2017. CSU has 6-foot-6 Kirstie Hillyer and Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, two all-conference middles, and sophomore outside Breana Runnels, also an MW first-teamer and the league’s newcomer of the year.
“We’re still trying to fill the two spots that we lost,” Hilbert said. “It’s not clear who’s going to emerge as playing in our O2 and our opposite. We have a lot of players that are doing good and nobody that’s doing great.”
“It’s kind of an interesting quandary to be in.”
The Rams — who have won the conference seven of the last nine years — went 29-4 in 2017, 17-1 in the Mountain West. They knocked off Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before getting swept by Stanford. They opened the regular season with a loss to Duke, later fell to Colorado and took that lone defeat in the league to San Jose State.
Hilbert has only missed one match during his time at CSU, and that was when his daughter was born.
“We’re a better defensive team than we were last year, we’re a better receiving team than we were last year,” Hilbert said. “Overall, we’re more mature, and our middles are good. But, we have to fill those two spots. We have to figure out who that’s going to be.”
Oleksak is a 5-10 junior from Phoenix.
“This year, since we don’t have any seniors and especially as a setter, I’m expected to take on a greater role as a leader,” she said. “There are players that lead on versus off the court, and my comfort level is to do some of both.
“Two years ago, when I was a freshman, the veterans did a great job of taking us under our wing and showing us the ropes, so that’s already part of who we are as a team.”
Hilbert had nothing but praise for Oleksak, who played in all 116 sets for the Rams while totaling 1,385 assists last year.
“First of all, she’s the leader, not only on the court, but off the court. She is well liked and respected, and she lives her life the right way, and everybody knows that and sees that,” Hilbert said.
“When you want to have good chemistry and team culture, you have to have a leader who’s like that, and she certainly is.”
Hillyer, a junior from Bayfield, Colo., averaged 2.88 kills and 1.46 blocks per set last year and hit .383. She also had the opportunity to compete with the U.S. Women’s College National team in Croatia over the summer.
“She looks as good as she’s ever looked, or better, really. This is the best training camp that I’ve seen her in. One of the best things that’s happened to her in this program is that she’s really embraced the weight room and the strength side of things, and she’s no longer this gangly 6-foot-6 kid,” Hilbert said.
“She’s an athlete at 6-foot-6. That has been great to see. When she’s on her game, we don’t have anybody in our gym that can stop her.”
Hougaard-Jensen, a junior from Copenhagen, Denmark, got her shot last year with injuries to both Hillyer and Alexandra Poletto. She led the team in both total blocks (139) and hitting percentage (.474).
“Paulina is a very smart player and probably the hardest worker on this team,” Hilbert said. “She’s somebody that came in two years ago, looks around, and says, ‘I need to be doing this, I need to be doing this,’ and pushed herself to learn it. We have coaches that have fed that. We’ve taught her a lot, but she has got a motor where she really wants to learn and get better all the time. And she’s never satisfied unless she’s having a good practice, or a good match. You want players like that, she burns very hot.”
Runnels a 5-10 product of Bakersfield, Calif., also had opportunities to mature this summer, competing for the Mountain West all-stars in the 2018 European Global Challenge in Pula, Croatia.
“Playing with different people, you don’t get the quality sets that you normally expect, and you need to focus because you need to step up into a different role that you don’t normally take,” Runnels said.
“I can use that on the court, because this year, we do have different players, and I do need to adapt to different things.”
Runnels led CSU with 367 total kills, 3.19 per set.
“Since we lost Jasmine Hanna and Sanja, who were our main returners, I think my role could be more prominent on the court as I do have more experience than some of our outside hitters. I guess I have to take on this role to lead in some sort of way.”
Hilbert said those open positions could be filled by 6-2 freshman Sasha Colombo and 6-foot freshman Jacqui Van Liefde.
“Sometimes Jacqui Van Liefde will have a great practice, and she certainly is physical enough to be a good outside hitter for us, but she’s still very inconsistent and looks like a red-shirt candidate at times because of her lack of consistency. You don’t want to put someone in a game that’s not ready to do it, you know?
“Sasha Columbo is a little more game-ready because she played at a pretty high level. She’s not as athletic as Jackie is.”
Colorado State will play an aggressive non-conference schedule. Hilbert managed to put together two strong home tournaments, with Illinois visiting this weekend and then Florida State, TCU and Cincinnati the next. Then the Rams go to Michigan, where they’ll play LSU and the home team. They’re also going to the Pac-12’s Colorado on September 15.
Hilbert, ranked eighth in the NCAA among active coaches with a .778 winning percentage, talked about what it takes to prepare his team for a run in December.
“The key will be being at our physical peak at that time. We’ve got to make sure that we’re training these players to keep them sharp and don’t wear them out. I think that’s really important,” he said.
“Our emerging outside hitters have to really continue to improve. It can’t be, ‘I worked really hard for three weeks until I landed the starting spot, and that’s it.’ They have to continue to get better. We need to have another outside hitter hitting in the .200s, who has not played for us before. That’s not easy to do, in any league, and so they’ve got to be able to do that.”