After going 2-1 during the season's opening weekend at Wyoming, the Colorado volleyball team dropped from No. 15 in the nation to No. 21 going into the annual Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.
It was a solid, though short of spectacular, debut for a team harboring big expectations in 2018 after a run to the NCAA Sweet 16 a year ago. The goals haven't changed, yet for the foreseeable future the Buffaloes won't be playing with the rotation coach Jesse Mahoney envisioned for this fall.
Prior to the Buffs' trip to Wyoming, senior middle blocker Naghede Abu was sidelined with an injury that will keep her out of the rotation for at least the next three weeks. As if the loss of a two-time All-Pac-12 honorable mention honoree and two-time defensive team MVP wasn't unfortunate enough, Abu's setback comes on the heels of outside hitter Frankie Shebby opting to leave the program just ahead of preseason workouts. According to Mahoney, as well as an Instagram post from Shebby, she decided a lingering back injury wasn't worth the risk of playing her senior season.
"Naghede's injury happened (last) week a day before we left, or something in that range," Mahoney said. "No excuses, but she's an impact kid. We don't have anyone like her. That impacted our performance and we had to shuffle some other things around as well."
While the 6-foot-4 Abu should return at, or near, the beginning of the Pac-12 Conference schedule on Sept. 19, the loss of Shebby will resonate throughout the season. She earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors after ranking second on the team behind Alexa Smith last year with 3.5 kills per set. Junior Justine Spann filled that spot opposite of Smith at Wyoming last weekend and acquitted herself well, finishing with 41 kills and 22 digs in three matches.
"Justine has been playing very well, and statistically had a very good weekend," Mahoney said. "Her performance has been a bright spot. But (Shebby) is an All-Pac-12 performer, no doubt. One of our best players. It changes what we are now. It changes how we recruited through the year, too. It is what it is. We have really talented kids on this roster and this opens up an opportunity for someone."
With 448 career blocks, Abu had been on pace to surpass CU's all-time record of 565 — a mark that remains within reach but will become a more challenging goal the longer Abu is absent. The shorthanded Buffs will play Illinois on Friday and Iowa on Saturday at the University of Washington in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.
"We want her back when she's healthy," Mahoney said. "As of now, that looks like probably rolling into Pac-12 is my guess. We'll see how she responds."