Colorado State volleyball season ends with loss to UTEP in second round of NIVC

·4 min read

Colorado State’s volleyball team learned some valuable lessons while playing two postseason matches, coach Tom Hilbert and his players said.

But the Rams won’t get another chance to play until next fall after dropping a four-set match to UTEP on Friday night in the second round of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. UTEP (23-7) took control of the match with strong blocking in the final two sets to leave Moby Arena with a 25-22, 12-25, 25-18, 25-19 victory and a spot in next week’s quarterfinals, where the Miners will face Weber State (21-9).

CSU (19-11) will take what it learned from playing two matches in two nights in postseason play and regroup while returning all but two players – libero Alexa Roumeliotis and defensive specialist Alyssa Bert – next fall.

The COVID-19-delayed 2020 season was played in two months last spring, with CSU and other Mountain West teams playing two matches on back-to-back nights at a single site, no different than they did in NIVC or that they would be playing if they had advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

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So, that experience alone should pay off for a young CSU team moving forward, veteran coach Tom Hilbert said.

“You have to mentally have a longer duration,” he said. “… They have to understand the duration of what needs to happen through a conference season, through a conference tournament, through a couple NCAA games or whatever it might be.”

Friday, with 1,082 fans cheering for them on their home court, the Rams showed how good they can be while dominating the second set.

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CSU had five service aces and one error in the second set, putting the Miners on the defensive as outside hitters Kennedy Stanford and Annie Sullivan blasted shot after shot at them from the left side of the net. Stanford, a sophomore, had four of her team-leading 14 kills in the second set.

“I think the serve-and-pass game was the difference,” Stanford said. “We really went aggressive, and they made adjustments after that set. We served hard and got on them early and kind of kept rolling through the second set, and when it was back to 0-0, they came out and responded.”

UTEP adjusted, picked up three blocks in the third set and took advantage of passes on the receiving end of serves and during rallies that went too far, setting the Miners up for easy kills. UTEP hit .414 in the third set with 15 kills and just three errors on 29 attacks and .250 in the fourth with 14 more kills.

UTEP had 13 blocks for the match to CSU’s five and had three players who were in on five blocks apiece and four who finished with nine kills or more, led by senior outside hitter Serena Patterson with 11.

“That’s a very mature team,” Hilbert said, “and I think what was happening toward the end is they were blocking us better. We were not blocking them, so they were, through rallies, gaining control of the rally and momentum and we didn’t really get them in trouble. So, they were able to get back in system and do things in transition that were really fast.”

It didn't help any that CSU was playing without its defensive leader, Roumeliotis, who missed the Mountain West Tournament and two NIVC games after entering COVID-19 protocols. Bert filled in admirably, junior setter Ciera Pritchard said. But the backcourt coverage wasn't the same, and the passing game suffered.

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And when the passes don't go where they're supposed to go, the setter doesn't have as many options to distribute the ball, making the attacks more predictable and easier to block.

"It's just a tough thing as a setter, where my job is defined by what the pass looks like," Pritchard said.

Still, the final match, played a night after the Rams rolled to a three-set win over Houston Baptist in the first round, was a good learning experience for a CSU team that hopes to be playing in the NCAA Tournament at this time next year after missing out on the past two following a string of 25 straight appearances.

“We focus on how did we progress through the course of this year, and I think it was great,” Hilbert said. “I’m very happy with these kids, and I think we’ve got a great future. We lose a couple of great defenders, but we’ve got a nice stable of young ones coming up, and we’re going to add Malaya Jones (a transfer from Southern Cal who sat out this season with an injury) to the mix, and I think we’re going to be a good team next year.”

Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at kellylyell@coloradoan.com, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you 're a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Colorado State's volleyball season ends with loss to UTEP in NIVC

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