Before the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Tournament began on Nov. 30, "5 NCAA volleyball tournament first-round games you can't miss, and why" was posted that day to the NCAA's website.
The number-one match?
Colorado State University, conquerors of the Mountain West Conference for a 15th time, against Tennessee. The Southeastern Conference runners-up were labeled "arguably...the biggest surprise this season" after improving from 12 wins in 2017 to 25 ending regular-season play in '18.
"If both teams pass at a high rate, the difference could be on the block, which the Rams rank 21st in the country," wrote author Jacob Myers. "Expect this game to be about as tight as possible."
Specifically mentioning Tennessee senior middle Erica Treiber, Meyers failed to mention who'd be resisting the Volunteers on the other side of the net.
But he was more or less spot-on with his prediction. Having traveled to Pullman, Wash., upset-minded CSU took a 2-0 lead inside Washington State's Bohler Gymnasium before losing 28-26, 25-20, 18-25, 21-25, 12-15 and ending their season standing 23-8 overall. The Rams finished a first-place 15-3 in the MWC, earning Ram Volleyball its 20th-ever conference crown.
Treiber hit 12 kills with six errors in 34 attacks for a .176 percentage against Colorado State and assisted on six blocks, but Ram redshirt-junior - and 2015 Bayfield High School graduate - Kirstie Hillyer smashed 18 kills with only two errors in 34 tries (.471) and was in on a season-high-tying eight total (1s, 7a) denials.
CSU's 32 block assists were the most ever by a Tennessee enemy in tournament play, as were junior middle-mate Paulina Hougaard-Jensen's marks of nine aided and 10 total rejections.
"That's something we've definitely been working on in practice," Hillyer told csurams.com after an Oct. 27 win over Fresno State, giving CSU a Mountain West lead they'd not lose the rest of the year. "So, each game both of us middles go into it wanting to do our job and get as many blocks as we can. We want to keep that going and keep that determination."
"We did a great job playing clean in the offensive part of the game," head coach Tom Hilbert told the same website after losing to UT. "We also out-blocked Tennessee...which shows that we were prepared."
Runners-up in the Southeastern Conference, the Vols fell the next day in four to Washington State. They finished the season 26-6 but later remained No. 19 in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association AVCA Division I Coaches Poll (released Dec. 17) while Colorado State ended up uncharacteristically unranked.
But even though the loss to Tennessee wrapped up CSU's 2018 season, a wave of post-season awards arrived just in time for Christmas, making for the sort of gift Hilbert undoubtedly hopes will keep on giving the Ram program a boost in Fall '19.
Five days before the aforementioned poll came out, and three before Stanford defeated Nebraska 28-26, 22-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12 in Minneapolis, Minn., to snag the National Championship, the 38th annual AVCA Division I All-America Teams were announced, and for the first time in an already-decorated college career, Hillyer's name was included.
Essential to CSU qualifying for a 24th consecutive "Big Dance" and 30th all-time, she was named Honorable Mention All-America, along with junior setter and two-time MWC Player-of-the-Year Katie Oleksak.
"It's definitely very exciting," Hillyer said Wednesday afternoon. "It's a great honor to have."
Previously an AVCA Honorable Mention A-A pick in '16 and '17, Oleksak also received Third Team All-America from Volleyball Magazine while Hillyer, Hougaard-Jensen and redshirt-sophomore outside hitter Breana Runnels each gained an Honorable Mention nod. Oleksak picked up additional Honorable Mention A-A accolades from VolleyTalk.
"Katie is one of the most amazing setters in the United States, honestly, so being able to have her on my team is such a great benefit for us and the team as a whole," said Hillyer. "She just knows how to get the ball where it needs to be."
Starting all 31 of the Rams' matches in 2018, Hillyer pounded 341 kills (second-most on the team) at 3.04 per set (also second-best), becoming CSU's first middle to average more than three since Mekana Barnes averaged 3.41 in 2008 en route to AVCA Honorable Mention All-America.
The 6'6" force also hit at a team-leading (41st nationally) .363 clip with just 97 errors in 673 total attacks.
Defensively, Hillyer finished tied for 47th in Division I in blocks per set (1.23), including 119 assisted stuffs and 19 solo for a total of 138. Booking 21 solo and 128 assisted for 149, Hougaard-Jensen's 1.33 per-set figure was tied for 28th.
"From my opinion - and a lot of peoples' opinions - we have the best middles in the Mountain West," Hillyer said. "And whether that be just one or both of us, I think...having that block and that attack in the middle really messes with a lot of teams because they don't have that. It's something that's so cool and pretty much unbeatable."
GOING 'MAD'2017 Bayfield grad Maddi Foutz, who started 26 of CSU's matches in '18, came up with a State-high 18 digs against Tennessee, giving the sophomore defensive specialist 263 (second-most on the squad) for the year, while Tennessee's Grubbs equaled Hillyer's 18 kills. Runnels led all with her 21, while freshman Lily Felts' 19 paced the Volunteers.
FAMILIAR FACES In addition to CSU, Tennessee and Washington State, also journeying to the Pacific Northwest for the tournament's opening round was Northern Arizona University. And yes, that would be the same NAU which faced the Rams in a spring-season scrimmage held inside BHS Gymnasium. NAU went on to win the Big Sky Conference with a CSU-like 15-3 mark before finishing 26-9 overall.