LOGAN, Utah — In front of a packed crowd at the Wayne Estes Center on Thursday night, Utah State volleyball bucked a 32-game losing streak versus Colorado State with a 3-1 victory to pull even with the Rams for first place in the Mountain West standings. It is the first time the Aggies have defeated CSU since Nov. 11, 1982.
“We’ve been working so hard and this match was so important to us,” senior Kristy Frank said. “Beating the number one team just proves that we can beat anyone in the conference and we can win the conference. It’s just so good to see all of our hard work paid off.”
Frank led the way for USU, setting a new career-high with 22 kills in the match while hitting a team-best .378 on 45 attacks. The native of Kiev, Ukraine, also posted her first career solo block, part of two total blocks on the night to go along with eight digs.
“Feeling my last senior games,” Frank said. “Really emotional… Our team did so amazing, I’m so proud. It proves so much to us and now we can be even 100 times more confident.”
Defensively, the Aggies blocked a season-high 18 total attacks from the Rams. Sophomore Inka Mehtola, junior Kylee Stokes and senior Corinne Larsen all tied for the team-lead with eight total blocks while freshman Katie Langford added another five blocks. Freshman Beatriz Rodrigues led USU with 12 digs, also posting her fourth double-double in five games with a team-high 26 assists. Both sophomores Abby Peterson and Tatum Stall were close behind Rodrigues with 11 digs each for the match. Peterson also notched a team-best three service aces. Junior Kalena Vaivai chipped in with 10 assists and eight digs on the night.
“It’s been 32 times since we beat Colorado State,” head coach Rob Neilsen said, “so to take them down in a critical match, I thought our players played composed and I’m so proud of this group… We got contributions from everyone. It was a great team win.”
After losing, 3-0, to Colorado State in the team’s first meeting this season, the first set on Thursday threatened a similar outcome. A 6-0 run by the Rams through the middle of the set gave CSU control as the Rams would go on to serve for the set at 24-17. A late 4-0 run from Utah State did not change the ultimate outcome of the set, as CSU won, 25-21, but proved a harbinger for the remainder of the match.
“Finishing at the end of that first set, we made a run to get back into it,” head coach Rob Neilsen said. “We played really good in stretches and we gave up a couple runs. You know, it’s jitters. We have a young team that hasn’t been through some of these moments, but I felt like for 70 percent of that first set, we were really good and we were ready to play great for the rest of the match. That’s all I told them, ‘Hey, you guys are great. Way to get the jitters out. Now let’s go take it to these guys.’”
The Aggies followed the words of their coach. Soon after allowing a 4-0 run to start the second set, Utah State responded in kind with a 7-0 spurt followed shortly by another 7-2 run to take a 15-9 lead. The Rams showed their own mettle, responding with a 7-2 lead to tighten the score before eventually recapturing the lead with a 4-0 run to go up 22-21 late in the set.
Yet it was the Aggies who first served for the set after a short burst gave USU the 24-23 advantage. Two quick points from the Rams then had Utah State facing a set point which would have put USU in a 2-0 hole for the match. A service error from Colorado State reopened the door for the Aggies and two consecutive block assists from Mehtola and Stokes clinched the second-set win for USU at 27-25 to square the match at one set apiece.
“It’s a pressure cooker,” coach Neilsen said, “and our team has performed at the end of sets all year long. Whether we’ve been down, whether we’ve been up… in pressure moments, we’re at our best. I thought they were at their best tonight. So to win that second set was huge and to gain some belief. Once you have a little belief, it goes a long way.”
With momentum and a raucous crowd behind them, the Aggies came out in the third set and quickly built a lead behind a 5-0 run. The lead gradually grew into a 14-9 lead for USU, who then shut the door with a dominant 11-1 stretch to win the third set, 25-10, and go up 2-1 in the match.
“Colorado State hammered us 25-8 (in the teams’ first match this season), so we remembered that,” coach Neilsen said. “We got a lot of breaks in that set. Obviously, that’s a great team. It was fun to kind of get rolling. Really the biggest thing was the turnaround to really stay strong in the fourth. It starts over again. You have to battle for every point. So proud of this group.”
In the clinching set, the Aggies immediately built a 4-1 lead and steadily extended it to 15-8, forcing a Rams timeout. Colorado State would not go quietly, responding with a 5-0 run to trim USU’s lead down to two points. It was the closest the Rams would get, however, as Utah State thwarted multiple comeback attempts over the remainder of the set. Larsen struck down the clinching kill to give the Aggies the 25-22 set win and 3-1 match victory in front of a thousand fans at the Estes Center.
“You have momentum building throughout the year and fans starting to come and really appreciating how hard this group plays,” coach Neilsen said. “You build some excitement obviously to have a team like Colorado State come in where it’s a marquee team. Then to play a great match… It gets me a little emotional thinking about how it’s growing and we’re starting to fulfill the vision that we’ve had for this program. We think we can do special things here.”
After defeating the Rams, the Aggies now turn their attention to Wyoming for the final match of the regular season. With a win and a Colorado State loss, USU would claim their first regular season conference title since finishing atop the WAC in 2012.
“We want to feel great about this and enjoy it but our group knows that we’ve got bigger goals in mind,” coach Neilsen said. “We’ll take care of what we’ve got to take care of and stay focused on Wyoming and hopefully play another great one in here.”
Utah State’s match versus Wyoming is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 20, at noon. The Aggies will also be celebrating Senior Day as part of the match.
Fans can follow the Aggie volleyball program on Twitter, @USUVolleyball, on Facebook at /USUVolleyball or on Instagram, @usuvolleyball. Aggie fans can also follow the Utah State athletic program on Twitter, @USUAthletics, Facebook at /USUAthletics and on Instagram, @USUAthletics.