Colorado State University is not having the season it expected to have – in a good way.
When the team lost four seniors last year, it was assumed that this season the Rams would have to go through some growing pains as younger athletes came into their own.
“All spring we talked about how this year was going to be a rebuilding year,” said sophomore opposite Adrianna Culbert.
To fill the positions the graduating seniors vacated, some younger players would have to be put on the starting roster while other starters were switched to new positions, a situation that can be hit or miss. But it seems this year’s team is indeed hitting away, standing undefeated at 25-0.
Tom Hilbert, in his 17th year as CSU head coach, chalks up the winning streak, which is a new program record for starting the season, to the hard work of his players. “As athletes have been shifted to play new roles, they have really emerged as top performers,” said Hilbert. “This group has excellent chemistry.”
Redshirt senior middle blocker Samantha Peters couldn’t agree more.
“We have the best chemistry on and off the court,” she said. “Everyone is very selfless and we support each other 100 percent.”
Both Peters and Culbert feel that last year’s team was also strong in terms of its skills and team spirit, but that there’s something different about this group of players.
“Last year was great,” stated Culbert. “This year is even better.”
Strong team bonding has been key to their success in matches, but it is hard to define exactly what has caused this special team chemistry. The program didn’t experience any major changes from last year to this year, and Hilbert hasn’t altered his approach to coaching.
Creating an environment of trust is just part of Hilbert’s regular program and team bonding activities take place throughout the year. “Building trust to me is about making sure the players know how to give, how to open up and be vulnerable, and how to allow this vulnerability to build trust.”
One small way Hilbert has helped the team connect was buying a disco ball a few years back. Yes, a disco ball. After finding out the players were dancing around the locker room before games, Hilbert bought the disco ball and now dance parties under the twirling lights have become a team tradition. Before each home match, the players crank up the music and everyone on the team joins in the dance party, which is part of what helps them feel open toward each other.
In addition to openness and the importance of trust, Hilbert has also always stressed the importance of being selfless. “I have a motto,” he said. Each year he tells the athletes the same thing. “The quality of your experience as a collegiate athlete is in direct proportion to what you give.” His motto stresses that players must always look for ways to give, which includes older players helping the younger players.
So, if the focus on trust and building team chemistry has remained constant throughout the years, could this year’s winning streak be attributed to a new routine in practices?
Culbert and Peters credit Hilbert for his knowledge and expertise. “I learn something new from Tom every practice,” said Culbert. “His knowledge of the game is incredible.” Both players also mentioned the recent addition of associate head coach Brook Coulter and assistant coach Matthew Botsford, both of whom started in the spring of 2012. Culbert is impressed by how Coulter sees the defensive aspect of the game, and she feels that together the coaches have helped the team understand and play the game as a whole, compared to seeing only the individual pieces.
But is there something dramatically different in how practices are run? Apparently not.
According to Culbert, practices are a little more competitive than last year. But she attributes this to the attitudes of the players themselves and not because of any big changes that were made in the program.
“Practices have been very consistent,” agreed Peters.
It seems then that consistency is part of the answer. Hilbert has maintained his focus on hard work and not even the buzz going on about the team’s record has shaken his levelheaded approach.
“I don’t even talk about our record,” he said. And, cliché as it might sound, he focuses on one day at a time. “In our practices we have been sticking to our routine. We try to enjoy ourselves and each other. I remind everyone that we don’t expect to win because we have a good record. We still have to earn each win.”
The players have definitely absorbed his message of earning a win. “We stay in the moment in each game,” said Peters. “Our record might be in the back of my mind for a little bit, but it quickly goes away because I keep my focus on how I can help my teammates play their best.”
Culbert says that all the talk about a “rebuilding year” got the team in the mindset of feeling like the underdog. “We play each team like they are the best,” she said. “We definitely don’t expect to win.”
Still, despite everyone’s modesty, this season has been impressive. Under Hilbert’s coaching, CSU has had steady success and a regular fan base, but this year has brought in a larger number of supporters and media attention. The Ram’s home court, Moby Arena, is consistently filled with 3,000 fans whose cheers have helped add to the excitement of home matches.
So perhaps, in addition to the benefits consistency has brought, their solid record could be a case of success breeding success. Because of the wins the Rams have accrued, other teams bring their best effort to each match, something Culbert thoroughly enjoys. She said that instead of feeling pressure to maintain their winning streak, the team uses its record as motivation to play harder. “We want to prove we have deserved our record,” she said. They didn’t get to where they are by playing easy teams or relying on luck.
Though the wins have indeed been exciting, everyone is staying calm and collected. The players and coaches are focused on each match as it comes and no one seems to be looking too far ahead. Hilbert keeps his attention on play within their Mountain West Conference, a conference he thinks his team can win.
“Staying undefeated isn’t the end all,” he said. “We want to play well and win the conference.”
If the team sticks to their routines in practice and continues to focus on one game at a time, winning the conference might just be the first step in a long and exciting post-season.
Originally published in January 2014