The University of Colorado women's volleyball team went on a tear to begin the 2013 campaign, knocking off squads left and right en route to an 11-3 record which included wins over then-No. 11 UCLA and then-No. 1 Washington.
While that kind of stretch would have been impressive for any school in the nation, it was particularly satisfying for some of the more tenured members of the CU team and staff. This is, after all, a program that combined for a total of just 12 wins in 2010 and 2011.
After completing the regular season with a record of 17-13, the Buffs are set to take on Iowa State on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the University of Minnesota.
Given the current state of the program, that rough stretch may seem a distant memory to some. But senior Nikki Lindow was among the Buffs who had to struggle through the reestablishment of a program which had reached its low-point. And she's been instrumental in the rapid turnaround.
"That's one of the things that's really exciting," Lindow said. "Along with the other seniors, we were part of building the program. We knew coming in to CU, with coach (Liz) Kritza, we were going to have to fight and scrap our way through. We've gotten recruits and we've gotten transfers in, and they saw the progress and they wanted to join our program and help our success. It's been really fun to see the progress and continue building."
After making 16 appearances in the NCAA Tournament between Colorado's inaugural season in 1986 and 2006, this season will be the Buffs' first trip back to the dance in seven years. This year's squad will also be the first to post a winning record in Kritza's five seasons at the helm.
"We were hoping for that," Kritza said of Buffs' return to relevance. "But when you are talking about playing in any of the top leagues in volleyball, and particularly when we made the move to the Pac-12, it's dependent on recruiting. How quickly you can get some of the top-level kids to look at your program and really want to be a part of something special like we had here and were building.
"I'm pleased with the amount of time (it took), but I'm also a very competitive person and a little impatient, so I wanted it to happen faster. But something like changing the program in a top league, it doesn't happen overnight, and you just have to be steady and consistent and be able to be tough enough to survive the lean years."
One of five members of the current squad who was on a 2010 team that went 6-20, Lindow has been a key cog for the Buffs at middle blocker since the day she set foot on campus. A starter throughout her career, she has led the team in blocks in all four seasons she's played, and currently sits in the top ten in the Pac-12 in both blocks and hitting percentage. She also ranks fourth on the team in kills this season.
While Lindow's presence in the middle of the Buffaloes' lineup has been a big part of the team's resurgence, it wasn't necessarily a given that she would play such a huge role. A basketball player and barrel racer early in her high school career, Lindow didn't pick up volleyball until later than most. But Kritza saw her athleticism and potential, and took steps to ensure that Lindow was able to develop early on in her time at CU.
In addition to the reaping the benefits of Lindow's evolution as player, the Centaurus graduate's arrival also represented a key aspect in Kritza's plan to get CU volleyball on track. Lindow was one of the first of several talented Colorado athletes Kritza was able to get into black and gold.
The list of other Buffs from the state includes Jessica Aschenbrenner, Emily Alexis, Kelsey English and Nicole Edelman. Also new to the to the team this year is feshman Cierra Simpson and junior Taylor Simpson, the latter of which was named the Colorado Class 5A Player of the Year her senior season and transferred to Colorado after stints at Nebraska and Missouri.
"There are top-level players in the state every year, but unfortunately they were going out of state and playing for some top teams in other conferences," Kritza said. "So we're trying to build a fence around these top kids. It's taken some time, but we've been able to get some top kids to see what a great opportunity there is here in their own backyard. That's one of the big pieces for long-term success, building a program that not just the school can be proud of, but the entire community."
Backed with sufficient talent and having had time to develop the program as she saw fit, Kritza now has a team which has proven it is capable of playing with any other in the nation. And in the middle of it all, at least for one last run, will be Lindow. Given the exponential progress seen in her time at CU, don't be surprised if she goes out with a bang.
"Hopefully we can look back on this and say 'We were the first group that helped the program be as successful as it is now,'" Lindow said. "I've got a ton of family support and friend support and it's really cool to see that. We've had a pretty good few years and we're finally going to the (tournament), and it's cool to see that the community is noticing that we are doing well."
The Buffs will take on the Cyclones at 3:30 p.m. MT at Sports Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus. Should Kritza's squad win, CU would take on the winner of Radford and No. 10 seed Minnesota on Saturday at 6 p.m.