Quite often last season, the six players that hit the floor for the start of any University of Colorado volleyball game tended to consume the bulk of the lineup's minutes.
There were exceptions, of course, with more than a few spot minutes off the bench, but for the most part the 2015 Buffs were a six-player operation. With the Buffaloes set to begin the 2016 season at the Portland State Invitational, the most notable difference between the squad that narrowly missed last year's NCAA tournament and the one set to hit the floor for the first time under coach Jesse Mahoney is the team's improved depth.
The Buffs take on Texas Tech in the season-opener Friday before facing host Portland State and Long Beach State on Saturday.
"Probably one of the differences from our teams before is our depth," senior Katelyn Cuff said. "I think that will be huge for the season to come. It was a lot of learning (the new systems) and a lot of frustration, but I think we've overcome that. It's going to be a great season."
Mahoney's first CU squad has been bolstered appreciably by a trio of transfers who wanted to continue their careers closer to home.
Two years ago, Alexa Smith was the top volleyball recruit in the state out of Lewis-Palmer High School. After spending one season at Purdue, Smith is expected to slide seamlessly into the premier outside hitter role vacated by the graduated Alexis Austin.
Setter Kiara McKibben, a former high school teammate of CU's Cierra Simpson and Gabby Simpson at Doherty, joins the Buffs for her senior season from the University of San Francisco. Fellow setter Marie Zimmerman is a junior from Lakewood who spent two seasons at Sacred Heart. Their additions should help expected No. 1 setter Gabby Simpson rotate for spells at outside hitter, where she earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last year as a sophomore.
The Buffs expect to be strong defensively with veterans Joslyn Hayes, Anna Pfefferle, and Katelyn Cuff playing alongside sophomore Naghede Abu, who could be one of the league's breakout stars this fall.
Senior Cierra Simpson is a standout libero who will direct the Buffs' attack. Her younger sister will be a force for CU but her availability is questionable this weekend due to a preseason injury.
"I think there's a few positions that are fairly well determined, and then there's a couple positions that aren't," said Mahoney, the fifth head coach in CU history who spent the past four seasons at the University of Denver. "We have to pass better, and there has to be a better connection between our setters and our attackers. We've had three setters going through camp and Gabby's been injured right now, so finding that rhythm has been tough for us.
"I think we're a pretty good blocking and defensive team. We're going to have to become a better offensive team, especially in transition, to do what we want to do."
While the Buffs might be a work in progress at the season's outset, they will have to get their act in a hurry before facing perennial power Penn State in the home opener next week.
"Our core group is going to be pretty good. We're really deep at every position, which is awesome because it makes practice super competitive," Cierra Simpson said. "We haven't honestly had that in the gym in a long time, that kind of atmosphere."