Talented, senior-laden No. 14 Colorado State enjoying a season of success

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Colorado State volleyball 2019-Katie Oleksak
High-jumping senior Katie Oleksak has plenty of targets to set at Colorado State/Colorado State Athletics

The pieces are there. Talented, tall and athletic players all coming together at the right time as seniors.

“Obviously there’s five of us, but more than that we’ve grown up together,” setter Katie Oleksak said. 

Accordingly, Colorado State, ranked No. 14 in the AVCA Poll and 13th in the latest NCAA RPI, is a team no one is going to want to play in the NCAA Tournament.

“This is a team filled with very mature, strong women who know how to compete, know how to train, and they take things very seriously,” said 23rd-year CSU coach Tom Hilbert. “Sometimes I think their anxiety is a little high because they are such perfectionists.”

Well, they’re not perfect, but the Rams are 16-1 and riding a 15-match win streak, which includes a 6-0 Mountain West start. They play at Boise State on Thursday. 

Colorado State volleyball 2019-Tom Hilbert-Rams
Coach Tom Hilbert is 751-2017 overall and 577-135 at Colorado State/Colorado State Athletics

“They understand how to execute a game plan, they understand how to prepare for people, and what the important things are in the game of volleyball,” Hilbert said. “I’m really pleased.”

“We’re all taking a lot of responsibility this year and we know how to get the job done,” said Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, a 6-foot-1 senior middle from Copenhagen, Denmark. “If someone is struggling one day there is always someone who can take over. There’s not just one good player, it’s a team of six amazing players.”

You might start that list with senior setter Oleksak, a 5-10 product of Phoenix who is averaging 10.56 assists per set, has 13 aces, and is second on the team with 126 digs, 2.21 per set. What’s more, she’s a superior leaper who touches 10-1 and blocks well (48 this season, eight solo) and hits the second ball over as well as anyone. 

“When my coaches (in Denmark) see her play, they tell me, ‘Get her over here, we can get her citizenship and she can play for the national team,’ “ Hougaard-Jensen said with a laugh. Legendary coach Terry Pettit, who moved to Fort Collins after retiring from Nebraska, said Oleksak is the best setter in the country at playing an out-of-system ball.

Kirstie Hillyer is pretty good at hitting those sets. The 6-foot-7 senior, who grew two inches since she got to college, is from Bayfield, Colorado, still in state but more than 400 miles to the southwest near Durango. She joked that she was “super, super skinny.”

“It’s really cool because she’s a middle who can hit any time, when I’m on the 10-foot line, when I’m tight, anywhere,” Oleksak said. “So I know I can dish it to her and she’s going to do something smart with it.”

Colorado State volleyball 2019-Kirstie Hillyer
At 6-7, Kirstie Hillyer can get it done for the Rams/Colorado State Athletics

Hillyer, this week’s Mountain West player of the week, hit a combined .655 in victories over Fresno State and San Diego State. In the two matches she had 19 kills with no errors. She’s second on the team with 72 blocks, 14 solo, and second in kills with 154 (2.61/set) and is hitting .404. 

Hillyer was redshirted her first year when “I didn’t know what volleyball was, not coordinated, I was from the smallest league in Colorado,” Hillyer said. “It was a big change for sure.”

Hougaard-Jensen leads the team in blocks with 79, nine solo, and is third in kills with 148 and is hitting . 332.

In CSU’s five-set loss to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Hillyer had 18 kills, hit .471, and had an assist, two digs and eight blocks, one solo.

“Tom saw something in me when I was a 5-7 13-year-old,” Hillyer said.

Hougaard-Jensen originally planned to turn pro out of high school in Denmark, but she said former club teammates who came to America “told me how amazing it is to play in college and to get over here.”

She didn’t start until her sophomore year and has played in all of CSU’s matches the past two years. Last season, she led the Rams with 149 blocks, including 10 — one solo — in that season-ender against Tennessee.

Runnels, a 5-10 junior outside from Bakersfield, California, leads the team with 221 kills, 3.75/set, and is hitting .279. She has 15 aces, second only to Alyssa Bert’s 23, and averages 1.71 digs.

“On out of system balls Bre is really smart,” Oleksak said. “It gets her a lot of kills, even when the pass is off.”

Runnels, who redshirted her freshman year, recognizes how well the Rams play together.

“We have good chemistry. There are a lot of seniors and we’ve all played together for so many years,” Runnels said. “We have a good culture and really believe in each other.”

Colorado State’s only loss was in the second match of the season when the Rams lost to visiting Cal in four, but came back that night and swept Oklahoma. Along the way, they’ve swept TCU and Florida State, beaten Colorado on back-to-back nights, swept Cal Poly and beaten Oregon State.

“If you’re not on it for all 25-plus points against them, you’re in trouble,” said Fresno State coach Jonathan Winder, whose team lost at CSU last Friday.

“They serve really tough and they do a lot of things that you need to do at a really high level,” Winder added. “The middles are both phenomenal, they can set them all the time, the setter’s great, she moves the ball around a ton, they’ve got two outsides who can kill the ball out of system and in system, and they serve really, really well. So you’re out of system and off the net against 6-7, 6-6, 6-5.” 

Hilbert, 751-207 overall and 577-135 at Colorado State, is thrilled that this is the culmination of a four-year plan that has come together nicely.

“I was saying that in 2016, when they were all freshmen,” Hilbert said. “We redshirted Breanna that year. 

“We had this large class and it was such a great class and I did pinpoint this year as one that was going to be very experienced and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.”

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