During the first regular-season sweep of ranked nonconference foes in the history of the University of Colorado volleyball program last weekend, a few early observations were clear about the Buffaloes.
Junior Gabby Simpson might be one of the most versatile talents in the Pac-12 Conference. The addition of transfers Alexa Smith and Kiara McKibben have significantly improved CU's depth. And the infusion of offense to the game of sophomore middle blocker Naghede Abu will make the Buffs difficult to defend.
But the most improved player so far in 2016? That would be junior Stephanie Shadley.
After playing sparingly in a backup role the past two seasons, Shadley has the look of an emerging star for the 18th-ranked Buffs, who hope to continue their run of wins against ranked opponents when they visit No. 15 San Diego on Friday night at 8 p.m. MDT in the first game of the University of San Diego Invitational.
CU (4-1) completes the trip on Saturday afternoon against UC-Irvine.
"I've gotten to play with and practice against some great players," Shadley said. "When I was a freshman it was Taylor Simpson. Last year it was Alexis Austin. Playing against them every day in practice, I think that helped me prepare. That was two years of practicing against some very good players."
Shadley logged much her court time during her first two seasons as a defensive and serving specialist, though her totals of four aces and 54 digs last season were significantly fewer than the marks she produced as a freshman (17 aces, 91 digs).
This season, first-year head coach Jesse Mahoney has deployed Shadley almost exclusively at her natural outside hitter position, and the results have been impressive. In the Buffs' opening three matches at the Portland State Invitational, Shadley's total of 38 kills was one better than the total she compiled during her first two seasons combined. In last week's win against then-No. 13 Penn State, Shadley put together a solid stat line of nine kills, nine digs, and two aces. In a win against a 17th-ranked Illinois squad the next day, Shadley led five CU players in double-digits for kills with 15, while again contributing to the defense with seven digs and two blocks.
"Those two years were good to focus on defense and serving," Shadley said. "That's all I did, so I wanted to be really good at it. Now, that's my comfort but I can focus on offense more and developing as an offensive player."
Shadley's emergence has given Mahoney a versatile set of weapons along the outside with Smith, Simpson, and Joslyn Hayes.
"She's getting an opportunity now. I think that's a large part of it," Mahoney said. "Steph is a positive kid who buys in. I think the spring was a good experience for her because she got a lot of opportunities.
"If you look at us statistically, you see a lot of kids with similar kill numbers. Our outsides will always get more swings than anybody else. It's the nature of the beast. But we diversify our attack very well, and I think that helps a kid like Steph and it helps a kid like (Smith). They're not huge, overpowering attackers. They need to be fast and they need to spread blocks."