CU volleyball preview: Nebraska
GAME TIME: Friday, noon MST, Lexington, Ky.
MATCHUP: Colorado Buffaloes (24-9) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (28-4).
COACHES: Colorado — Jesse Mahoney, 2nd season (38-25, 126-66 overall); Nebraska — John Cook, 18th season (527-69, 688-142 overall).
BROADCAST: Live stream available via ESPN3.
NOTES: The Buffs are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time overall and the first time since 1997...Since beginning Pac-12 play with a 2-4 mark, CU has gone 12-4...The Buffs have never advance to the Elite Eight, losing in the Sweet 16 in 1993 (Penn State), 1994 (Nebraska), and 1997 (Stanford)...Formerly Rivals in the Big 8 and then the Big 12, CU has won just 7 of 56 matches all-time against Nebraska. The programs haven't met since their final contest as league rivals, a three-set Nebraska win on Nov. 13, 2010.
A little more than two years ago, Alexa Smith figured she had everything she could possibly ask for.
As one of Colorado's top volleyball recruits out of Lewis-Palmer High School — the same school that produced former CU basketball star Josh Scott — Smith had her choice of big-time collegiate programs. Opting to see what life was like outside the borders of her home state, Smith chose Purdue and enjoyed immediate success, even playing in the NCAA Tournament at the end of her rookie season.
Yet Smith found herself longing for home. She transferred to Colorado that winter and could have been forgiven if last year's 6-14 mark in the Pac-12 Conference made her wonder if home was all it was cracked up to be.
This season more than made all those ups and downs well worth it. A first team All-Pac-12 selection as well as an all-region honoree, Smith is so full of pride at being an integral part of leading the Buffaloes back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years that reflecting on the journey caused the junior outside hitter to grow a little teary-eyed earlier this week.
"Honestly, I was just so happy to be back in the state of Colorado, and with this coaching staff and these girls. I never doubted that once," Smith said. "I think we realize that was a disappointing end to our (2016) season. Throughout the spring and summer and going into the fall, we've done the work that we wanted to get back to the tournament and get to where we are now."
Coach Jesse Mahoney's squad makes its Sweet 16 return on Friday afternoon in Lexington, Ky., against fifth-seeded Nebraska — a former big-name rival of CU when both programs competed in the Big 12 Conference. The Buffs play at noon MST, with the winner taking on either BYU or host Kentucky on Saturday.
While Mahoney essentially replaced half the starting lineup from last year's disappointing squad, Smith has been one of several mainstays, putting together a stellar season for the Buffs. Smith has posted at least 20 kills in eight contests this season, and her average of 3.99 kills per set ranks seventh in the ultra-competitive Pac-12, which sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament and still has five entrants alive in the Sweet 16.
Smith's 475 kills ranks as the sixth-best single-season total in CU history.
"I dreamed about this all growing up," Smith said. "So many people have helped me and got me to this place where I dreamed of being, and being with these coaches and these girls beside me, it's more than words can describe."
The Buffs proved the rugged Pac-12 slate was a perfect primer for the postseason last week, sweeping James Madison in the first round before doing the same to 12th-seeded Baylor on the Bears' home floor. The Huskers have won 15 consecutive matches and are coming off a second-round sweep of another Pac-12 foe, Washington State.
"I think (Nebraska) had four or five all-region team. There's multiple future all-Americas on the team," Mahoney said. "Their setter (Kelly Hunter) is as good as we've seen this season, and we've seen some really good ones. They have five attackers who are averaging two kills per set, which is very hard to do. That means they spread their offense around. It's tough to game-plan against a team that is happy to set anyone anywhere."