The Colorado women's soccer team turned in a memorable bounce-back season a year ago, rebounding from a last-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference in 2015 to eventually reach the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
Though it was a talented roster, the Buffaloes may have taken a few of their opponents by surprise after the dismal finish a year earlier. As the Buffs get set to open preseason practices on Wednesday, they will do so with a talented roster and a pile of expectations that likely will erase ideas of sneaking up on anyone in 2017.
As CU begins preparations for the season opener Aug. 18 at Colorado State, here are the most pressing questions the Buffs must address over the next two-plus weeks.
Who will play up top?
While head coach Danny Sanchez returns the bulk of his top performers in the midfield and on defense, much of the focus of preseason camp will be to find replacements for forwards Danica Evans and Emily Bruder.
Evans, who began a pro career this summer with the Orlando Pride of the National Women's Soccer League, shared the team lead in goals (11) and assists (six), and her 28 points counted as the second-best single-season total in the program's history. Bruder was a speedy force along the wing, frequently drawing defensive attention away from Evans and dynamic midfielder Taylor Kornieck. Bruder ranked third on the club with 12 points (four goals, four assists).
A leading candidate to fill that role is freshman Martine Puketapu, who competed with the New Zealand national team earlier this year and practiced with the Buffs during spring drills.
"That's kind of the big one," Sanchez said. "Obviously we have some people in-house who can step up into those roles and have an impact for us. That's probably the biggest thing we have to look at, but we think we have some good people there."
Can last year's super freshmen continue to grow?
The Buffs received a huge boost in 2016 from the abrupt and dominant emergence of Kornieck and goalkeeper Jalen Tompkins.
Kornieck wasted little time showing why she was the most decorated recruit in the program's history, sharing the team lead in goals while adding four assists. Her 26 points tied for the third-best single-season mark in CU history as she won the Pac-12's Freshman of the Year honor.
Tompkins, a redshirt freshman last year, began the season splitting time with Scout Watson but soon took over the starting job in net, going 15-5-1 while tying the school record for save percentage (.855). Tompkins will anchor a veteran defense, while Kornieck — still just an 18-year old who spent time with the U.S. U19 and U20 national teams in recent months — should make life easier for whoever takes over at forward.
"She's a very humble young lady and she knows no one nobody owes her anything," Sanchez said. "You get the sense she wants to prove she can play at the highest level. She wants to compete for championships. And she's willing to put the work in to do it. She had a great freshman year, as we all know, but as I told her lots of players have great freshman years. We feel like she's just going to get better."
How will the Buffs manage expectations?
CU did a terrible job in this regard two years ago, backing up two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with that last-place finish in 2015. Yet with Kornieck in control of the offense and a rock-solid defense that returns intact, Sanchez expects his club to build on the program-record-tying 15 wins it posted last year.
"It really depends on the personality of the team, and we really like this group," Sanchez said. "We still have players with a lot to prove, even as seniors. It's a hungry group and they know there is always still a lot to prove."