Katie Oleksak was a long shot.
Recruited by some of the top D1 volleyball programs in the country - Oregon, Notre Dame, San Diego, Arizona - the Arizona native had her pick of the litter.
And Colorado State head volleyball coach Tom Hilbert knew that the Rams might not be the super setters final destination.
"I wasn’t sure if we had a real chance at her,” the long-time Rams coach recalled.
As a kid growing up in Phoenix, Oleksak surrounded herself with some of the top talent in the state by competing with the Arizona Storm, a top-rated club team. She could have gone anywhere in the country, yet her gut pulled her toward Fort Collins.
"Everyone was like, “Why would you choose CSU? It’s in the Mountain West.” And like I said, it was just an overall feeling.”
Thanks to that "feeling", the Rams went 21-9 in the 2016 season, falling just short of an eighth straight MWC Championship. Flash forward to today, where the Rams are midway through the 2017 season, and CSU (16-2, 6-0) currently holds the top spot in the Mountain West.
“She doesn’t really want to take credit for it sometimes," Sanja Cizmic said when talking about her young teammate. "But when you look at our stats, for example, and you see that all of us hitters have almost an equal amount of sets that we get per game, it makes it so much harder for other teams to block us. And that’s why we are as successful as we are.”
Fellow senior Jasmine Hanna agrees.
“I think any player in any position can make a difference," Hanna adds. "But especially as a setter you have to have a certain mindset. You have to be a certain leader out there on the court and that’s what Katie is. She embodies all of those values.”
From the first day Oleksak stepped on campus, Hilbert knew she would make an immediate impact. And for just the second time in his 21-year career at CSU, he put a true freshman in the starting lineup.
“I think of all the players we’ve recruited, she’s the one that could handle it," Hilbert recalls. "She immediately came in, was trusted leader, had great presence on the court and that’s what you need.”
Oleksak admits she felt some pressure, but she also says it was pressure she desired.
“This is big time. I’m coming in as a freshman. I’m gonna be the only setter," Katie explained. "I’m gonna embrace this role and I’m just gonna run with it.”
By the season's end, Oleksak was named the conference's Freshman of the Year. She was also only one of two first year players to earn All-America recognition nationwide.
“When players look at her, her body language, her abilities, every little thing that she does radiates “I’m gonna lead you, I’m gonna take you where you want to go," Hilbert raved. "And that’s what I love about her.”
The Rams face San Jose State on Thursday night at Moby Arena at 7 p.m. (MT).