Colorado tennis coach Nicole Kenneally and her team head into Sunday's season opener against Air Force with a sense of optimism.
The Buffaloes are coming off their first .500 season in six years and return four of their top five players from a year ago while adding three impact newcomers. But the task of playing in the toughest conference in college tennis requires constant focus to compete with the best.
"I believe we've gotten better, but there are other teams in the Pac-12 that have improved as well," Kenneally said. "Home and away is important. You've got to win at home and you've got to look to snag [upsets] on the road. I do believe we are in the best conference in the country. We've got four of the top (nine) teams in the country."
The conference features No. 2 Southern California, No. 6 California, No. 8 Stanford and No. 9 UCLA, as well as five other teams ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association preseason top 75.
"You're going to be tested day in and day out, and if you know that you've done the work off the court and you know that you've done the work on the court, that only breeds confidence to be able to go beat somebody (ranked higher)," Kenneally said.
CU earned its lone Pac-12 victory last season over Washington State, but was much more competitive throughout the season than in previous years, dropping a pair of 4-3 decisions to Oregon and Utah and battling tight sets in singles matches against some of the powers such as USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford.
Last season's freshmen will still be young, but the roster has more balance this season.
"I feel like we are have a great group in regards to ages; we're not stacked necessarily in one year. I feel like our newcomers are going to also have an immediate impact. That's going to always make us continue to improve our depth."
Tina Bokhua, who played No. 1 singles much of her freshman season, was named ITA Mountain Region Rookie of the Year, posting a 12-11 singles mark in 2015. Despite returning to the top spot in the lineup, the Moscow, Russia, native could slide down in the lineup due to the team's depth.
Nuria Ormeño Ruiz, a junior from Barcelona, Spain, had a huge fall for the Buffs, winning the Mountain Regional tournament and becoming the first singles player in school history to advance to the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships.
Three other Buffaloes return from last year's squad with experience in the lineup. Alex Aiello is the lone senior on the team and has been a major contributor the past two years after transferring from Syracuse. She went 18-15 last season, playing between No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 in the singles lineup.
Kyra Wojcik went 9-16 and was also a staple in the doubles lineup. She and since-graduated Julyette Steur became the first doubles pair in school history to qualify for indoor nationals. Vitaliya Alkhovik combined for a 4-7 record at the No. 5 and No. 6 singles spots last year.
UTEP transfer Jeannez Daniel and freshman Annabelle Andrinopoulos come in with high expectations. Daniel won 22 singles matches as a freshman last season, playing No. 2 for the Miners. Andrinopoulos joins the Buffs as the top-ranked junior in Australia and has been ranked as high as No. 50 overall in her home country. Freshman Brigitte Beck also hails from Australia and, like Andrinopoulos, has been one of the top-ranked juniors in Australia, but was held out of singles competition in the fall.
"The opportunities are there for all three of them," Kenneally said of the newcomers.
CU last qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2007, but that achievement appears to be a realistic goal this spring.
"Our focus should be in being our best every day, getting better every day, working on the things we need to work on to let those wins happen."
Colorado will host Air Force at 11 a.m. on Sunday at the Rocky Mountain Tennis Center.