November 30, 2011
By Tony Phifer
Rams set to begin play in their 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
It was not by chance that the CSU volleyball team was boarding a jet Tuesday morning, leaving the cold of Colorado behind for sunny Hawaii.
This is standard stuff for the Rams. Each November, like Black Friday and leftover turkey, an invitation to the NCAA Tournament arrives. It has been that way for the past 17 years – the longest postseason streak, by far, of any sport in CSU history and one of the most impressive in the nation.
Many of CSU’s current players were toddlers the last time (1994) the volleyball program failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Since that time, the Rams have reeled off at least 20 wins in 17 consecutive seasons, won seven Mountain West Conference championships (including the past three), and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament five times.
Coach Tom Hilbert, who took over the program in 1997 and immediately won 27 matches, has grown the program each year since his arrival following a successful stint at the University of Idaho. The Rams have fielded numerous All-Americans, have dominated all-conference selections and have produced the Mountain West player of the year eight times in the league’s 13 years of existence.
A big part of the program’s success, Hilbert said, is the home-court advantage the Rams enjoy at Moby Arena.
“We have a great place to recruit to here,” said Hilbert, CSU’s all-time leader in victories with 381. “CSU is a great school, Fort Collins is a great city and Moby has a great environment. Recruits come in here and see this great atmosphere and how our crowd helps us win. The Moby environment is a big part of the brand of CSU volleyball.”
When Hilbert arrived, CSU was averaging slightly less than 1,000 fans for home matches – good, but hardly noteworthy. Since then, CSU has more than doubled its average attendance and annually ranks among the top 25 programs in the nation.
This year, CSU finished 17th in attendance, drawing nearly 26,000 fans for its 12 home matches.
The large, enthusiastic Moby crowds have helped Hilbert produce an almost unbeatable home-court advantage. CSU is 371-84 (.815) all-time at home, while Hilbert is 211-27 (.887) in Moby.
Part of the reason for that success, Hilbert said, is Moby itself. CSU is the only Mountain West volleyball team that plays in its main arena, and Moby’s alignment allows fans to sit close to the court.
“It’s intimate, and the fans are right on top of the action,” he said. “After the match, they can come down on the floor and talk with the players. That’s the best part about playing in Moby.”
There is no better example of CSU’s home-court advantage than a Sept. 2 match against Nebraska, which currently is ranked No. 2 in the nation and expected to challenge for the national title. A Moby Arena and Mountain West record crowd of 6,758 watched as the Rams dropped the first two sets before rallying to a stunning five-set victory.
Hundreds of CSU fans stormed the court to congratulate the Rams on one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.
“That was an incredible experience,” Hilbert said. “As we began to come back, you could really feel fans attaching themselves to our team and helping us. We’ve had other great wins in Moby, but none of them had that same great theater. When we came back like that, and the students mobbed the floor, it was amazing. I would put that among the best events ever held at Moby.”
Hilbert is hoping the confidence gained in that win over Nebraska, along with momentum from winning the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles, will help the Rams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. They open play at 8 p.m. MST Thursday at the University of Hawaii’s Stan Sheriff Center against No. 13 Oregon. If they beat the Ducks, the Rams will play the winner of Thursday’s Hawaii-Northern Colorado match at 10 p.m. Friday.
“This is a really exciting opportunity for us,” Hilbert said. “These are not insurmountable opponents. Oregon is really good, but we are, physically, every bit as good as them. We play them on a neutral court, and I’ll take that any day.
“I fully believe we can go there and win two matches.”