Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado leading scorer Miranda Stinson and the Buffs head to California for two games this weekend.

CU women’s lacrosse preview: USC Trojans

GAME TIME: Friday, 4 p.m. MT, McAlister Field, Los Angeles.

BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Network.

RECORDS: Colorado 5-5, 4-1 Pac-12 Conference; USC 12-1, 7-0.

KEY PLAYERS: Colorado — A Miranda Stinson, Sr., 35 goals, 10 assists; A Samantah Nemirov, Sr., 26 goals, seven assists; GK Julia Lisella, Jr., .488 save percentage, 9.67 goals-against average. USC — MF Kelsey Huff, So., 30 goals, five assists; MF Sophia Donovan, So., 24 goals, 11 assists; GK Riley Hertford, So., .493 save percentage, 8.86 save percentage.

NOTES: The Buffs are just 2-5 all-time against USC with an 0-4 mark on the road…Seven players accounted for USC’s goals in an 11-5 win at CU three weeks ago. Stinson scored three goals for the Buffs…The Trojans boast six players with at least 20 goals…The Buffs complete the road trip Sunday at Arizona State (2 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network) before returning home for the final two home games of the season next week against Stanford and Cal.

The Colorado women’s lacrosse team enjoyed a steady ascension after its inception in 2014, evolving from an infantile program that eked out a winning record in its first season to one that earned its first NCAA Tournament win last spring.

So far this year, however, that progress has hit a lull.

For the first time since that inaugural 2014 campaign, coach Ann Elliott Whidden’s Buffaloes are sporting a 5-5 mark instead of a winning record through 10 games. Granted, that .500 record has been put together against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, with seven of those 10 opponents currently ranked in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Association top 25.

The average record hasn’t diminished the Buffs’ stature on the national stage. CU still is ranked 23rd in the latest IWLCA poll, and with a 4-1 league mark the Buffs remain in the thick of the Pac-12 Conference race. But after two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances CU enters the final third of the season on the outside looking in, and the grind doesn’t get any easier this week as the Buffs visit No. 14 USC on Friday afternoon.

“My message to them after Denver (a 9-7 home loss against No. 16 DU last week) is that if the NCAA Tournament started today, we probably wouldn’t make it,” Whidden said. “I don’t think we’ve lost any bad games. I don’t think we’ve won enough. We can’t control that. We can’t control the games that we were close in and probably let slip away. We can’t go back in time and fix that.

“But if we focus on April, and we focus on our conference which we’re very much in the hunt to compete for a conference championship in the regular season and in the tournament. If we keep focusing on that, hopefully we’ll be in a good place.”

While the Buffs are just 2-5 against those ranked opponents, they are 4-1 in league play and by themselves in second-place in the standings. The Trojans (7-0 Pac-12) handed the Buffs their only Pac-12 loss so far, an 11-5 defeat at Kittredge Field on March 16, and as one of only two Pac-12 teams that have played just five league games so far heading into the weekend, the Buffs still are in position to make a claim at the top seed for the Pac-12 tournament later this month.

Despite retaining their national ranking, exactly how the Buffs still are faring nationally will clear a little more next week when the women’s lacrosse RPI is released. Yet CU remains in solid position in the Pac-12, and making headway within the league as well as within the NCAA tourney picture could be bolstered simultaneously with a strong showing against the Trojans.

“I’m feeling pretty positive about where we’re headed, but we can always improve,” said CU senior and leading scorer Miranda Stinson. “We’ve definitely not reached our potential. Consistency is going to be key for these last five games. Definitely the losses that we’ve taken have put us in a corner. We’ve had this kind of boxing mentality this whole season — we’ve put ourselves in a corner, now we’re going to have to fight our way out.”

Pat Rooney: or