It wasn't exactly a triumphant return to Colorado for Alexa Smith. But given her immediate impact on the attack for the CU Buffaloes volleyball team, it hardly was a disaster, either.
While a 14-16 overall record and a 6-14 finish in the Pac-12 Conference — a downward spiral that included losses in nine of the final 11 matches — left a bad taste throughout the program, Smith could at least be heartened that her decision to transfer back to her home state proved to be a wise one.
Smith was one of the bright spots for the Buffs last year, leading the team in kills by a wide margin as a sophomore. While CU coach Jesse Mahoney attempts to assimilate new starters at the setter and libero roles, Smith expects to be the leader of an offense that returns the bulk of its production from 2016.
"I think looking back, obviously we were disappointed with the outcome, but the intensity was always good and I think we return a lot of those weapons," Smith said. "Coming back into this year, we have a different mindset coming in. We're more competitive in practice. We were more competitive in our scrimmage. I think that will carry into the season."
Smith was considered one of the top recruits in the nation when she graduated from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, winning the National High School Coaches Player of the Year Award as well as the Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year honor.
Smith signed with Purdue, but after a productive yet unfulfilling freshman year she opted to transfer to CU. While Smith paced the Buffs with 380 kills — the 12th-best single-season mark by a CU player since the rally-scoring era began in 2001 — her addition didn't lift the Buffs' offense to another level. In league games, CU finished eighth in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage and ninth in kills per set, numbers that will have to improve if the club hopes to make a run at returning to the NCAA Tournament.
"The simple answer is when Alexa plays well we do well, and when she doesn't we tend to struggle because we put a lot on her shoulders," said Mahoney, who begins his second season Friday against Northwestern State at the Oklahoma Invitational. "Ultimately, when we're a good team, she's not taking as many swings as she is right now. We need some other people to emerge a little bit, but for right now we're going to go into the first weekend with her getting a lot of swings."
There was a significant dropoff to CU's runner-up in kills — it was Stephanie Shadley with 258 — but it is an area where the Buffs can expect improvement in 2017, even while breaking in new players at setter and libero. CU returns five of its top six leaders in kills from a year ago, with Gabby Simpson's transfer to Kansas accounting for the only loss among that group. CU also returns a steady senior in Joslyn Hayes, who has added to her kills total every season, along with middle blockers Naghede Abu and Anna Pfefferle.
Among that group, Shadley was one of four players who did not participate in Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage due to an injury, and Mahoney said all four players begin the week as question marks for Friday's season opener.
"It does take a lot of confidence to be a hitter, especially when it comes to game time in a Pac-12 situation, so having so many returning hitters is huge," Hayes said. "We're constantly able to give our setters feedback, and our liberos are able to talk to us. Even though those are new positions for us, we're able integrate really well because we're able to communicate properly."