Coming up Aces
With its time at the top, women’s volleyball ranks as the winningest team.
By Tony Phifer
Shortly after a humiliating straight-sets loss to Air Force in Fall 1982, head volleyball coach Merri Dwight told her players to sit on the court at Moby Arena and think about what had just taken place.
Sherri Danielson Fenn, then a freshman and the greatest player in CSU women’s volleyball history, vividly recalled the moment 37 years later. “I remember sitting on that court, and all I could think about was, ‘We suck!'” Danielson Fenn said. She was an outside hitter who had come to Colorado State from Evergreen High School to study biological science and spent at least a few moments during her first year wondering why she hadn’t picked Stanford University. “It was a very difficult season, to say the least. We struggled the entire year, and our fan base was nonexistent. I had never lost a match in high school, so all of the losing was really tough for me to take.”
For today’s volleyball fans, that story might seem beyond belief. After all, the program is now the very model of success: It draws enviable crowds and has produced 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament – as well as more conference championships than any other sport at Colorado State University. The CSU volleyball team, which began its 2019 season in late August, has ranked in the Top 25 nationwide in 22 of the last 23 seasons, peaking at No. 3 in 2000; that’s the highest ranking for any University team in any sport. In short, sustained winning has made CSU women’s volleyball an athletics juggernaut on campus and a well-known powerhouse nationwide.
How did the program get from there to here? That nightmarish loss to Air Force in 1982 – occurring during a season that ended with a 5-23 record – was a wakeup call for the slumbering program that had been lucky to draw 50 fans per match. Coach Dwight departed after one winning season in five years, and Rich Feller, a little-known assistant coach from the University of the Pacific, took over.
“Rich came in and brought new energy, new focus,” said Danielson Fenn, who went on to play on the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team and was an alternate in the 1988 Olympics. “He really transformed our entire program. He brought in great assistant coaches, and they had a great vision for what CSU volleyball could become. We just kept getting better and better.”
She teamed with newcomers Diane Saba and, later, Angie Knox and Cindy Cox to transform the program. The Rams finished 27-12 in Feller’s first season and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. During Feller’s second season, the Rams won the High Country Athletic Conference title and took a 26-8 record into the NCAA Tournament. They faced 14th-ranked Arizona in a first-round match at Moby Arena, the first time CSU had hosted an NCAA women’s event.
From left, players Angie Knox, Cindy Cox, and Diane Saba helped transform CSU women’s volleyball, leading their team to the NCAA Tournament for the first times in school history. Last year marked the 24th appearance in tournament play. Photography: CSU Athletics
“That match changed everything,” Danielson Fenn said of the Rams’ 3-1 upset. “Arizona had great players, including some I played with later on the national team. We were the underdogs, but our crowd was incredible, unreal. They really willed us to win. It’s a match I’ll always remember. That’s when I knew we were really doing something special.”
Michael Walker, who graduated in computer science in 1988, has held volleyball season tickets for more than 20 years and still travels from Castle Rock, Colorado, south of Denver, to watch matches from seats behind the home bench. He, too, remembers the CSU-Arizona match. “It was amazing when the school started getting behind the team – all of a sudden, you had to wait in line to get in the door,” he said. “I really believe that’s when Moby Madness took off.”
Feller coached for 13 seasons, then departed for the University of California, Berkeley in 1996. That’s when Tom Hilbert, an up-and-coming coach from the University of Idaho, came to town. Hilbert’s 23 seasons as head coach of CSU women’s volleyball have been extraordinary: He has the most successful record of any CSU coach in any sport, with a tenure that likewise towers over the accomplishments of any coach at any of the five Division I schools in Colorado.
Here’s a summary: 23 NCAA berths; 15 Mountain West Conference titles, never finishing below third; ranked in the Top 25 in 22 of 23 seasons, with six wins over teams ranked in the Top 10; 20 consecutive seasons ranked in the Top 25 in home attendance, including 2013, when CSU was seventh nationally.
Hilbert has put together some astounding numbers of his own: He ranks No. 8 among active coaches, with 712 wins, and 24th all-time; has been named Mountain West coach of the year 12 times in the league’s 20-year history; owns a 52-1 record at home against the other Colorado Division I programs; and is 295-43 in Mountain West home matches, a jaw-dropping .872 winning percentage. In 2000, with a team that featured All-Americans Angela Knopf, Soria Santos, Courtney Cox, and Allison Peckham, the Rams went to Gainesville, Florida, to open the season and knocked off No. 9 Florida and top-ranked UCLA on successive days. The win over UCLA stands as the only time a CSU team has beaten a No. 1 team in any sport.
The program is a point of pride for fans and for current and former players. It is also admired by other coaches, who marvel at CSU’s sustained excellence when larger schools in Power 5 conferences seem to have every built-in advantage. “One of the important aspects of any successful athletics program is consistency,” said Terry Pettit, who turned University of Nebraska women’s volleyball into one of the nation’s best programs during his 23 seasons. “Some programs have a window where they are exceptional for three to five years, but to do that over a couple of decades is very difficult. There are just so many variables that can work against you, but Tom’s been able to sustain it for a long time. He really is an asset, not just to CSU, but to the entire community.”
Since the moment he arrived, Hilbert has worked to create a family atmosphere in his program. Practices are difficult, and only the best players see action during games. Yet players on Hilbert’s teams genuinely care for one another. “When people ask about our team culture, I always tell them that there’s not a single person on the team I would mind rooming with on the road,” said Katie Oleksak, the team’s star setter at the outset of the 2019 season. “It starts with the upperclassmen. When I was a freshman, the seniors included us in everything. Now that I’m a senior, we’re making sure to include all of the younger players. It really is like a family, which is so cool. Not every program is like that.”
That love for teammates remains years after graduation. Dri Culbert, a former All-American who returned to CSU in June to become an assistant coach on Hilbert’s staff, recently attended the wedding of former teammate Grace Gordon. “Everyone on the (2015) team was there, and we have this tradition whenever someone gets married: We do our team dance, just like we did when we played,” she said, laughing. “You never forget your teammates because you go through so much together. The success is great, but in the end, what really matters is the relationships. We genuinely love and care for each other.”
Hilbert is feeling good as he enters his 24th season. The Rams return five starters from last year’s team, including Oleksak, the two-time Mountain West player of the year, middle blockers Kirstie Hillyer and Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, and outside hitter Breanna Runnels – all 2018 all-conference selections.
Each year, though, the pressure to extend the NCAA streak mounts. Hilbert wonders if fans truly understand the challenge of making it to national tournament play. “Each year is different. The players change, the team dynamic changes, and other teams come gunning for us. You have to create a hunger to accomplish your goals,” he said. “If you don’t create a sense of urgency, you will fail. We don’t win just because we’re Colorado State. That’s not the way it works.”
And so, the quest for 25 trips to the NCAA Tournament continues. Only six schools – volleyball royalty, all – have longer streaks, led by Penn State and Stanford, at 38 in a row. And to think the turning point came when a group of players, shortly after enduring a loss to Air Force, got a chance to make things right. In the 35 seasons since that straight-sets loss, the Rams and Falcons have met 50 times. Score: CSU 50, Air Force 0.
“How cool is it that the program has gotten to the point where making the NCAAs is expected?” said Danielson Fenn, who lives and coaches elite youth volleyball in Orange County, California. “It’s not, ‘if we are going to make it.’ It’s, ‘How far are we going to go this year?’ I can tell you, it fills me with such pride to know I was part of that program.”