No. 25 Colorado volleyball at No. 16 Utah
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. MDT, Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City.
RECORDS: CU 10-1; Utah 9-2.
BROADCAST: Pac-12 Network.
NOTES: The Buffs split a pair of matches against Utah last year, with the road team winning each time. Alexa Smith paced last season's five-set win at Utah with 13 kills and 16 digs, while Naghede Abu added 10 kills and six blocks...The Buffs begin a stretch of three consecutive home games, the final homestand of that length this season, against defending national champion Stanford, which is ranked fourth...Last year's win at Utah ended a six-game road losing streak against the Utes.
Earlier this week, Colorado volleyball's Alexa Smith experienced mixed reactions upon learning the Buffaloes had inched their way into the national top 25.
First, of course, Smith was pleased. The Buffs were picked ninth in a preseason poll of Pac-12 Conference coaches, and with CU breaking in new starters at setter and libero that ninth-place slot seemed a reasonable designation in what is perhaps the nation's toughest volleyball conference.
Then a moment of resolve hit Smith. The Buffs also snuck into the top 25 during nonconference play last year, but the wheels quickly fell off once Pac-12 play began. As No. 25 CU opens its Pac-12 schedule Friday night at No. 16 Utah, Smith and the Buffs believe it will be a different story this year.
"The only pressure is the pressure you put on yourself, but right when I saw we were ranked the first thing I said in my mind was, 'I don't want to lose that,'" Smith said. "I don't think anyone on the team wants to lose that. We want to move up. I think it's something in the back of our heads we can keep using to motivate us."
The Buffs moved into the top 25 after a stirring comeback last week at rival Colorado State, which was ranked No. 22 at the time. It follows a somewhat similar blueprint as last year, when the Buffs scored early wins against ranked foes from Penn State and Illinois to power their way into the national rankings. Overall CU spent five consecutive weeks in the top 25 last year, topping out at No. 16, but that surge abruptly stopped once Pac-12 play began.
CU lost two of its first three league games in 2016 and never recovered, eventually finishing in ninth-place with a 6-14 league mark. The road won't be any easier this season — as league play begins in earnest this weekend, seven Pac-12 teams are ranked among the nation's top 25 — but the Buffs believe their 10-1 start and the improved chemistry they have displayed on the floor makes the club far better suited for the trials ahead.
"I definitely think everyone is a lot more focused and dialed-in," junior middle blocker Naghede Abu said. "We all communicate a lot better. Last year we communicated pretty well too, but I feel like this year we've jelled a lot better in that we trust each other to cover for each other's mistakes. I always joke about it to Gabby (Carta-Samuels) that if I don't close a block, I know she'll be there to pick me up."
This weekend offers just an opening glance at what is in store for the Buffs in the rugged Pac-12, as CU follows Friday's tough road match with a home date Sunday afternoon against the defending national champion, No. 4-ranked Stanford.
"I think we're a year older, a year wiser," CU coach Jesse Mahoney said. "We've got some different personnel on the floor. I think last year was a little bit more about some injuries and some circumstances as opposed to our level of play. But we lost those games, so we can't get them back now.
"I think we have more players that can come in and contribute than a year ago and our mentality is better. We feel more ready for what's coming. We have the No. 16 team on the road and then the national champions on our floor. That's an average weekend for us."