This was the sort of quality nonconference win that eluded the University of Colorado volleyball team a year ago. And when the Buffs became one of the most prominent omissions from the 2015 NCAA Tournament, those narrow shortcomings only grew more glaring.
There remains a long road ahead, including a rugged Pac-12 Conference schedule, but if the Buffs survive the league slate and return to volleyball’s version of the Big Dance, Saturday night’s match against No. 13 Penn State likely will be a huge highlight of the Buffs’ tourney credentials.
In a back-and-forth affair the Buffs were able to answer every rally by the Nittany Lions, making a memorable moment out of coach Jesse Mahoney’s home debut with a five-set upset victory in CU’s first game of the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.
“As far as RPI goes, these are matches and these are opportunities for us,” Mahoney said. “Losses don’t hurt us very much, but wins help us a lot. As you get down towards the end and they’re making decisions, they’ll look at how many top 25 (wins), how many top 50 you get.
“We set ourselves up this year to play a lot of really good competition early. This is the first step. Hopefully we get some more wins as well.”
After dropping the first set, the Buffs rallied to claim a 25-20 win in Set 2 and were poised for the upset after winning Set 3 25-19.
CU jumped to a 5-1 lead in Set 4 but Penn State took control from there, rallying for a 25-20 win to force Set 5. However, the Buffs completely dominated the deciding frame, jumping to a 4-0 lead and never looking back in a win-clinching 15-3 decision.
“One thing we really talked about is we don’t want to lose on this court,” sophomore Alexa Smith said. “This is our home court and we want to protect that. Going into that (fifth set), we just said we’re not going to lose on this court.”
Smith paced CU’s attack with a team-best 12 kills while also adding 18 digs. The Buffs also welcomed back junior Gabby Simpson, who missed last week’s season-opening matches at the Portland State Invitational due to an injury. While still not 100 percent, Simpson turned in a solid all-around effort with a team-high 25 assists, 10 kills, and eight digs.
Stephanie Shadley also enjoyed a strong night for the Buffs with nine kills and nine digs, while Naghede Abu recorded eight blocks and nine kills.
A familiar face to a handful of the Buffs nearly helped the Nittany Lions stave off CU’s upset bid. Haleigh Washington was a teammate of the Buffs’ Cierra Simpson, Gabby Simpson, and Kiara McKibben at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, and she caused plenty of headaches for her old friends on Saturday with nine blocks, eight kills, and five digs.
Simone Lee paced Penn State’s offense with a match-best 19 kills.
While the Buffs (3-1) were happy to welcome back Gabby Simpson, they played without senior middle blocker Katelyn Cuff, who spent the match on the bench with a walking boot covering her left foot. Cuff will remain sidelined for CU’s match against No. 17 Illinois Sunday night in the finale of the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, and she likely will be out three to four weeks due to an ankle injury.
“If we didn’t think we were a good team before this, now we know we’re a good team,” Mahoney said. “The first weekend was a little up-and-down with our level of play. If we would’ve played like that the first weekend, we would’ve played a lot less sets and we would’ve come home 3-0.”
Colorado 3, Penn State 2
At Coors Events Center
Penn State (2-2) 25 20 19 25 3
Kills — Penn State: Lee 19, Gorrell 14, Frantti 11; CU: Smith 12, G. Simpson 10, Shadley 9, Abu 9.
Blocks — Penn State: Washington 9, Gorrell 5; CU: Abu 8, Hayes 5, Pfefferle 4.
Assists — Penn State: Weiskircher 35, Detering 15; CU: G. Simpson 25, McKibben 21.
Aces — Penn State: Washington 1, Lee 1; CU: Shadley 2, Pfefferle 2.
Digs — Penn State: White 18; CU: C. Simpson 24, Smith 18, Shadley 9, G. Simpson 8.