It should be an exciting autumn for Colorado fans. And for once that enthusiasm can be tied to something other than the Buffaloes' sketchy expectations on the gridiron.
While the countdown to the Rocky Mountain Showdown against Colorado State has ticked under the two-week mark, two Buffs squads harboring legitimate chances of making monumental national impacts already are off and running.
On Thursday, a Buffaloes women's soccer team that for some confounding reason was left out of the national preseason top 25 opened its season with a dominant 3-0 victory at Air Force. Later this week the 15th-ranked CU volleyball team, fresh off its first appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16 in 20 years, opens its season with three matches over two days at the Rumble in the Rockies hosted by the University of Wyoming.
It will be a successful fall if both teams can match last year's success, which also saw coach Danny Sanchez's soccer team advance to the second round in its fourth NCAA tourney appearance in five seasons. The difference this year is the expectations swirling around both clubs. Going into 2017, no one pegged the volleyball team as a contender to be among the last 16 teams standing. And while the 2017 soccer team was a talented bunch coming off an NCAA Tournament berth, this year's club finally has the sort of depth capable of taking aim at the national powers in the Pac-12 Conference like Stanford, UCLA, and USC.
"This is the most depth we've had," said Sanchez, who is starting his seventh season at CU. "Now, watching five Pac-12 games (Friday) night, everybody has great depth. So you have to keep things in perspective. You can't be patting yourselves on the back. We feel we have some good depth. We have some good competition. But when we look around at other teams in the league, you see all-conference players coming off the bench.
"It's good to have and it's a good challenge. But this is definitely the most quality of players we've had one through 24."
Sanchez deserves credit for building the sort of program that can compete at a national level while revamping the lineup on the fly to include promising youngsters. The Buffs reached the NCAA tourney yet again last year with a true freshman, Hannah Cardenas, starting every game as a central defender. Another true freshman, Libby Geraghty, started the season opener at forward.
Despite the glut of talent on the roster, Sanchez still started three freshmen Thursday at Air Force — Geraghty (she suffered a knee injury in the 2017 opener and redshirted), Jesse Loren, and Kayleigh Webb. Loren assisted Webb on the Buffs' first goal of the season. Outside of junior midfielder Taylor Kornieck, a season-ending injury to any of the other 10 players in CU's starting lineup would be problematic, yet hardly catastrophic.
Given the typical top soccer prospect is targeted by college recruiters by the 10th grade at the latest, Sanchez and his staff have done a commendable job of identifying which players will pan out during the crucial late-teens development phase. Moreover, incoming transfers tend to improve dramatically under the tutelage of Sanchez and his staff. Former Buff Becca Rasmussen compiled only two goals and four assists in 52 games over three seasons at Georgia, yet she led CU with seven assists last year. Current forward Tatum Barton didn't register a point in 18 games as a freshman at Texas Tech in 2016. Heading into Sunday's home opener against Colorado State, Barton has recorded seven goals and two assists in 23 games with the Buffs.
"When you look around the country, there's lots of great coaches. I think the thing that's more important than coaches to a certain extent is the environment and culture that they're in," Sanchez said. "If you have a group of players that hold themselves to the same standard, and have the same expectations and goals, naturally you're going to get tugged along. It would be easy to say we have some secret formula. But I think that with the culture and environment we've established, players know the expectations."
The football fever that bestows tunnel vision upon many a CU fan in terms of their rooting interests is understandable, yet it's unfortunate the soccer and volleyball teams often draw sparse crowds. At the very least, both programs will be well worth the price of admission this fall.