Arizona State at CU Buffs volleyball
Game time: Friday, 7 p.m., CU Events Center.
Records: ASU 13-13, 4-10 Pac-12 Conference; CU 14-11, 6-8.
Notes: The Buffs host No. 20 Arizona on Sunday on Senior Day...Setter Jenna Ewert was named the Pac-12 Conference Freshman of the Week earlier this week after totalling 87 assists last week at Cal and Stanford...Despite losing at Stanford last week, the Buffs became just the second team to push the No. 2-ranked Cardinal to five sets this season...The Buffs posted a 3-1 win at ASU on Oct. 21, getting 13 kills from Justine Spann and 34 assists from Ewert...CU begins the week in eighth-place in the Pac-12 while boasting an RPI of 50...CU visits Oregon and Oregon State next weekend.
As a relative newcomer not only to volleyball but to the country, Naghede Abu entrusted her continued growth as both a player and person to the staff of former Colorado volleyball coach Liz Kritza.
When Kritza was fired the following the 2015 season, perhaps no player on the Buffaloes' roster seemed a more likely candidate to transfer than Abu, a native of Nigeria whose family moved to California when she was a teenager. Abu was coming off a solid rookie year with the Buffs that ended with honorable mention honors for the Pac-12 Conference All-Freshman team.
But Abu never really wanted to leave Boulder. Three years later, as she and classmates Alexa Smith and Gabby Carta-Samuels prepare for their final home games at the CU Events Center, Abu heaps praise on Kritza's replacement, Jesse Mahoney, for helping her develop into one of the most accomplished middle blockers in program history.
The Buffs, in need of results over the final six games of the season in order to play their way back into the NCAA Tournament picture, begin their final homestand Friday night against Arizona State before hosting No. 20 Arizona at noon Sunday on Senior Day.
"I give credit, a lot of it, to Jesse for being patient with me," Abu said. "To an extent, every single person on this team thought about leaving, or trying to find somewhere else that might be better. With a new coach, there's that insecurity. Does he want me? But with Jesse coming in with new practice plans and ways of doing things that we were all unfamiliar with, I'm really glad I stuck it out and I think it's been a really great experience for everyone involved."
Mahoney had not yet been at his new job for two weeks when he received what he described as "a Christmas present" by getting a verbal commitment from Smith.
Following an unfulfilling freshman year at Purdue, Smith, a Colorado native from Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, wanted to return home. So convinced was Smith about wanting to join the Buffs she reached out to associate athletic director Ceal Barry while the volleyball coach position was still in flux between Kritza and Mahoney.
Smith also was willing to enroll at CU before a scholarship was available, trusting the new coach would make it happen as soon as possible. For his part, because those weeks over the holidays are a dead period for recruiting, Mahoney was unable to meet Smith in person until after she had committed to play for him.
While Abu has been a force in the middle of CU's defense — she enters the final homestand needing 30 blocks to match Meghan Barkman's CU career of 565 — Smith has been the catalyst for the Buffs' attack the past three seasons. An All-Pac-12 selection a year ago, Smith goes into her final homestand with 1,219 kills, good for 12th on CU's all-time list.
"It's probably one of the best decisions of my life to come back here," Smith said. "I think the culture of this program is super special. It's not something you get everywhere and that's one thing I've loved about this whole university."
Like Abu and Smith, Carta-Samuels played a key role last season in the Buffs' run to the Sweet 16, the first appearance at that level by CU in 20 years. A defensive specialist/libero, Carta-Samuels played in 118 sets last year but has been limited to just 61 this year, in part due to a series of injuries.
"I think it's gone fast," Carta-Samuels said. "I've met some of my best friends for forever, but there's also certain wins you look back and think of. All the time you've spent in this place, it kind of becomes who you are over the four years. There are a lot of memories that are going to come flooding back, for sure."