There was a very short list of destinations Kiara McKibben had in mind when she first toyed with the idea of spending her senior volleyball season at a different locale.
In fact, if the opportunity had not arose for McKibben to rejoin a couple old friends and former teammates in her home state of Colorado, McKibben might have been content completing the career she started at the University of San Francisco.
However, in 2012 McKibben, Cierra Simpson, and Gabby Simpson won the Colorado Class 5A state championship together at Doherty High School, and the opportunity to play one last season together was too enticing for McKibben to ignore.
While filling a void for an injured Gabby Simpson, McKibben enjoyed an impressive CU debut on the road last week. She hopes for more of the same this weekend as the Buffs face formidable set of foes in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, hosting No. 13 Penn State on Saturday (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) and No. 17 Illinois on Sunday (6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
"First off, I've always wanted to play in the Pac-12. So it was a great opportunity to come back home, especially for my senior year," McKibben said. "Honestly, if I didn't know the girls on the team already, I probably wouldn't have come. When I was thinking about coming, Cierra and Gabby actually gave me a call and they were really excited I was going to come for a visit here. I high school we won a championship together, so hopefully we can bring that to the Pac-12."
With Gabby Simpson sidelined by an undisclosed injury last week, McKibben took over as the Buffs' primary setter and averaged 46 assists per match as CU went 2-1 at the Portland State Invitational.
Head coach Jesse Mahoney said Gabby Simpson likely will return to the court this weekend, but what role she plays and how many minutes she might be able to log remain uncertain. Regardless, whether it is this weekend or when Simpson is healthier, McKibben's presence not only adds depth for the Buffs but also will allow Mahoney to periodically move Simpson to outside hitter, where she earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year.
"In the spring we were a little light at setter, and that has carried over to the fall with the injury situation," said Mahoney, who will make his home debut as CU's coach. "McKibben has done a really good job of stepping in and learning what we want to do.
"Before Gabby got hurt we were splitting setting time, having Gabby attack part of the time as well. It was good for our team to see that Kiara will do a good job if Gabby isn't in there."
This weekend will mark the beginning of three consecutive games against ranked opponents for the Buffs, with a visit to No. 18 San Diego looming next week. While the Buffs certainly would have preferred a 3-0 start last week, they nonetheless acquitted themselves well with one of their key players on the sideline.
Despite Gabby Simpson's somewhat uncertain status, this weekend will provide a better gauge with how the Buffs match up against the nation's elite competition.
"The challenge is playing two physical, skilled, well-coached teams that both have already played high-level competition early in the season," Mahoney said. "These teams are going to be better than the ones we faced the first weekend, and we'll have to play a cleaner brand of volleyball in order to be successful."
Pac-12 rival Stanford will be the fourth team at the tournament, allowing the Buffs to get a sneak peak at an opponent they will not face until a road match on Oct. 7. Stanford takes on Illinois on Saturday and Penn State on Sunday, with both matches beginning at 3 p.m.