This weekend’s two victories in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge marked the first time video replay was in use for the University of Colorado volleyball team.
The new dimension at all CU home games paid immediate dividends for coach Jesse Mahoney and his Buffaloes late in Sunday’s five-set win against then-No. 17 Illinois.
A frantic finish in a decisive fifth set that ended in a 19-17 CU victory was set up by a crucial replay reversal. With the set tied at 9-9 a spike attempt by Naghede Abu was correctly ruled out of bounds. However, upon review it was ruled an Illinois player had grazed the ball at the net.
Instead of a 10-9 deficit, the Buffs took a 10-9 lead. That swing proved critical in a set that saw the Buffs play at match point on five occasions before finally prevailing.
“For me, (replay) is a love-hate relationship,” Abu said. “I thought I hit that ball out. But then at times it’s very slow.”
That was a refrain echoed by Mahoney, who still believes the challenge system will be a work in progress. The Buffs and Oregon are the two Pac-12 programs utilizing the system this fall.
“I think they got the calls right, especially when we were the ones challenging,” Mahoney said. “It’s a little bit of 50-50, and there’s some gamesmanship because people are challenging to slow down the pace or change the momentum. I think that’s tough on players because there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. Sometimes we know what the result is going to be.
“That being said, I think they did a really nice job. We were able to get that net call in Set 5, which was a momentum-changer for us for sure.”
With the victories, the Buffs made their season debut in the American Volleyball Coaches Association top 25 poll, checking in at No. 18. Penn State dropped from 13 to 17, while Illinois slipped from 17 to 21. Stanford, which also swept its two games in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge at the Coors Events Center, remained at No. 9. The Pac-12 also is represented by Washington (6), UCLA (7), and USC (24).
It is the Buffs’ highest ranking since reaching No. 18 in 2014. CU hasn’t been ranked higher than 18 since the 1998 season.
On Monday, Abu was honored for her weekend efforts with the Pac-12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Week award. The sophomore middle blocker recorded eight blocks and nine kills in the win against Penn State and added four blocks and 13 kills against Illinois. Abu’s kill total against the Fighting Illini matched a career-high she reached a week earlier against Portland State.
Gabby Simpson’s comeback
The Buffs’ first back-to-back wins against ranked nonconference opponents in the program’s regular-season history was powered in part by the return from injury of junior Gabby Simpson.
Pegged as the team’s primary setter this season after excelling as an outside hitter last year, Simpson missed last week’s three matches at the Portland State Invitational but appeared back in form in CU’s wins against No. 13 Penn State and No. 17 Illinois.
While Simpson posted a team-leading 55 assists in the two matches, the emergence of Kiara McKibben during Simpson’s absence allowed her to frequently shift back to her former outside hitter role. Simpson contributed 18 kills in the two matches, while McKibben tallied 50 assists.
Expect Simpson to continue shifting roles, adding an extra dimension to an attack that already features solid contributors on the outside in Alexa Smith, Stephanie Shadley, and Joslyn Hayes.
“We did that (shifting) my freshman year, which brings back memories,” Simpson said. “It’s nice to kind of split it in half. That way you’re not all setting or all hitting. I like the balance between the two.”
The Buffs will attempt to keep the momentum rolling at the San Diego Invitational. CU takes on the host school, the 15th-ranked University of San Diego, on Friday night (8 p.m. MDT) and plays UC-Irvine at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon.