The quest to return to the NCAA tournament for the University of Colorado soccer team didn't begin during the spirited spring practices the Buffaloes held months ago in hopes of erasing a forgettable 2015 season.

Nor can it be traced back to a number of thrilling victories earned in the waning moments of matches early this season by CU that propelled the Buffs into a memorable rebound year.

It actually began a little more than a year ago, when the Buffs trudged off the field at Utah on the heels of a season-ending loss that left CU in last place in the Pac-12 Conference.

No one expected such a precipitous drop following consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2013 and 2014. Before the Buffs even reached the locker room that gloomy day at Utah, coach Danny Sanchez pulled aside Morgan Stanton and a few of the other 2016 seniors to deliver a stern message.

That message helped catapult the Buffs from last place into a tie for second in the league this year. And once again CU landed a spot in the NCAA tournament, with Oklahoma State set to visit Prentup Field at noon Saturday for a first-round showdown.

The winner will play either Alabama State or one of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds, South Carolina, next week.


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"I remember after that (Utah) game and I went up to Danica (Evans). We were really upset and both of us were crying," Stanton said. "I think we were the last two to leave the field. I felt bad for the seniors last year that they had to go out on that note. We agreed right there that wasn't going to be us, that we were going to put in all the work that we could possibly do to have a successful year this year."

Though the CU lineup and rotation boasts a large number of freshmen and sophomores who weren't part of the mix during the team's consecutive tournament appearances in 2013 and 2014, the Buffs nonetheless enter Saturday's match with a solid level of NCAA tournament experience.

Evans, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection alongside league Freshman of the Year Taylor Kornieck, scored goals in both tournament games as a freshman at Portland in 2013. Stanton tallied an assist in CU's 2014 tournament win against BYU on a team that also featured defenders Mikaela Kraus, Kahlia Hogg, and Joss Orejel. And senior Emily Bruder, who is tied for third on the team with four goals, even played against the Buffs in the 2014 tournament with North Carolina.

"(Experience) is a very huge asset," Bruder said. "This was a goal for all of us, and it's always been one of my personal goals. I'm just very excited we've succeeded this far. It's such a privilege to go to the NCAA Tournament, because not every team can go. We've put in the work and we're just ready and excited."

A former rival from CU's days in the Big 12 Conference, Oklahoma State arrives in Boulder with an abundance of NCAA Tournament experience as well, having reached the tourney for the third time in four seasons and the ninth time in the past 11. Among the Buffs' priorities will be keeping tabs on OSU senior Courtney Dike, who shared the Big 12 lead with 25 points (nine goals, seven assists) and was the league's co-Player of the Year.

"They're very well coached and they have a couple really good, dynamic attacking players, especially Courtney Dike. She'll be a handful for us," Sanchez said. "And they're very good in the back. At this point, every team is good, especially coming from a Power 5 conference. It's going to be a tough match for us."

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07