December 4, 2013
By Tony Phifer
It has been 20 years since the CSU volleyball team wasn't a participant in the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, much has changed in that time.
The year was 1994. Bill Clinton was president. The World Series was canceled by a players’ strike. And the world watched in amazement on live TV as O.J. Simpson tried to elude police in a white Ford Bronco.
At CSU, Albert Yates was serving one of the most successful presidencies in school history. The football team had just won its first conference title in more than 40 years and had accepted a bid to play Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. And Fort Collins was less than two-thirds its current size, with a population of 90,000.
The volleyball team had just experienced its worst season in more than a decade, finishing 12-19 and well out of consideration for the NCAA Tournament. Few suspected that the path of the program was about to change in ways no one had imagined.
The following year, the Rams rebounded from their dismal 1994 campaign to finish 21-11 and earn a ticket to the NCAAs, and they were 23-11 with a return trip to the NCAAs in 1996. After that season, popular coach Rich Feller accepted the job at Cal-Berkeley, opening the door for a little-known, 37-year-old coach from Idaho named Tom Hilbert to take over at CSU.
“The ironic thing is that we were coming off the best season in Idaho’s history,” Hilbert said. “We were ranked 19th in the country, and we had a first-team All-American. But I came here because I thought we could do some special things at Colorado State.”
And that’s exactly what he has done. Thursday at 6 p.m., the Rams will be making their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance when they take on Cal State-Northridge in Los Angeles (watch online). Postseason play has become as much a part of the December landscape as cold temperatures and half-off holiday sales at department stores.
But the volleyball program is defined by much more than sustained success. Hilbert has transformed Moby Arena into a house of horrors for visiting teams. With large crowds of knowledgeable, passionate fans yelling in support, the Rams have gone a remarkable 240-29 (.892) at home in Hilbert’s 17 seasons and have upset several ranked teams, including No. 5 Nebraska in 2011.
In other words, success at the sport’s highest level is the accepted norm at CSU.
“I knew when I came here that this was a program that had a history of success, and I expected to be part of that,” said senior defensive specialist Michelle Smith, one of two players in program history to be part of five Mountain West Conference championships. “You come here and you understand you’re part of a tradition, and the last thing you want is to be part of a team that screws that up. That helps push you to work harder and always try to get better.”
The ironic twist to this magical season – the Rams opened with 27 consecutive wins and are 28-1 going into their first-round tournament match – is that Hilbert thought this might be the year the NCAA streak ended.
“I was worried about that in the spring,” he said. “We didn’t look good at all, and we had a lot of problems to solve. Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of freshmen step up, and a lot of our veterans made the decision to get better.”
One such veteran, Hilbert said, is Marlee Reynolds. A junior outside hitter, she overcame a sluggish spring season to become a force for the Rams, leading the team with 3.12 kills per set.
“She’s become an anchor for our team,” Hilbert said.
Other standouts include Mountain West player of the year Samantha Peters, setter of the year Deedra Foss and all-MWC players Adrianna Culbert and Kelsey Snider. And Hilbert, of course, who was named coach of the year for the ninth time in the league’s 15-year existence.
Defensive specialist Cassidy Denny is among the freshmen to step forward and play a significant role. Just 18, she was not even born when CSU’s NCAA streak began, and playfully referred to Smith – nearly five years her senior – as “Grandma Ram.” Despite her youth she was well aware of what was expected of her when she arrived in Fort Collins.
“There’s a standard here where you just expect to be part of a good team,” Denny said. “The thing I like is that we all get along, and we all play for each other.”
Added Smith: “We don’t have any superstars, so we know we all have to play our best to be successful. We’ve been doing that all year, and if we do that in the tournament, we’ve got a chance to go deep.”
Hilbert isn’t sure what to expect of his team. Cal State-Northridge is a solid team that will present a difficult challenge, and the Rams would have to get past that match and then host and No. 7 Southern Cal on Friday if they hope to reach the Sweet 16. All he knows for sure is that he’s having a great time.
“This team has exceeded expectations more so than any team I’ve coached,” he said. “The cool thing is that they are doing it unselfishly, by playing for each other. That’s what’s so gratifying.”