Two years ago, as Jesse Mahoney prepared for his first season at the helm of the Colorado volleyball program, he did so with a team reeling from an offseason coaching change and the disappointment of being one of the last teams left out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Last year, after his initial Buffaloes team finished just 6-14 in the Pac-12 Conference, few were certain what to expect from a CU squad well-stocked with talent that nonetheless was coming off a 2-9 finish in 2016.
The Buffs proved any doubters wrong last season with the program's best postseason run in 20 years. This year, as Mahoney and the Buffs open his third season as CU's head coach with the team's first official practice on Wednesday, they do so with the burden of high expectations upon their collective shoulders.
This year, the Buffs should be one of the top teams in the ultra-competitive Pac-12, one that has the talent and experience to repeat last year's run to the Sweet 16.
"We haven't addressed expectations a whole lot. And we really don't in our program very often," Mahoney said. "We don't talk about how good we're supposed to be, or going to be. We talk about what we're going to do today in practice and the team that we're playing on the weekend.
"It's nice to have the group of players we have coming back. On top of that, we really like the underclassmen that we have. We have four freshmen and we add two players that redshirted last year in Dani Price and Anyse Smith. So we feel like we have even a little more firepower."
The Buffs return four starters from the program's first Sweet 16 team since 1997 and also posted a 12-8 mark in the Pac-12 — CU's best mark since joining the league.
Leading that group of returning starters are two seniors on track to finish their careers firmly entrenched among the Buffs' all-time leaders in Alexa Smith and Naghede Abu. Abu already owns three of the top eight single-season block totals in program history, with her matching total of 153 in each of the past two years ranking fourth. Abu enters the season with 448 career blocks and, barring injury, should surpass Meghan Barkman (565) for the Buffs' all-time lead later in the season.
Smith led the Buffs with 484 kills last year and was CU's only first team All-Pac-12 selection. Add to the equation setter Brynna DeLuzio, who was named the AVCA Pacific South Region Freshman of the Year, and an experienced defensive specialist in senior Gabby Carta-Samuels, and the Buffs seemingly do not have a weak link across their lineup.
"Every year is different, and the mesh of players is different," Mahoney said. "I think last year, especially the second half of the season, we jelled as a team and got better and were playing our best volleyball at the end of the year. We're going to have to find a way to do that again with a new group...some of the same players, but every year is a new mix. We're optimistic, we're all excited because of the success we had last year. But we understand nothing is going to be given to us. We have to go out and play again."
The Buffs open the season on Aug. 24 with matches against Oral Roberts and North Florida at the Rumble in the Rockies hosted by Wyoming. CU faces the host Cowgirls the following day and does not play its home opener until Sept. 7 against Georgia...Single-match tickets are on sale at CUBuffs.com or 303-49-BUFFS. General admission tickets are $8 and reserved seating is $10. All children 12 and under once again receive free admission.