A changing of the guard is underway with the Colorado volleyball program.
For the past two years the Buffaloes have earned bids to the NCAA Tournament, making the program’s first run to the Sweet 16 in 20 years in 2017 before using a solid late-season run last fall to secure a repeat bid.
When the Buffs begin preseason workouts on Friday in hopes of eventually making it three NCAA appearances in a row, they will do so with a reconfigured cast of characters. Gone is standout middle blocker Naghede Abu, a four-year starter who ended her career as CU’s all-time leader in blocks, and Alexa Smith, an offensive force at outside hitter for three seasons in Boulder.
To call the Buffs a new-look team this fall isn’t just a catchphrase, with a total of nine newcomers dotting the roster. Yet the goals remain the same, despite a club that still must develop experience alongside its array of young talent.
“Certainly Naghede and Alexa and Gabby (Carta-Samuels) were really positive contributors for us over the years, but the nice thing about the three seniors that we have is that they have a really nice grasp and understanding of our culture and how we do things,” said assistant coach Lee Maes, who filled in for head coach Jesse Mahoney at Saturday’s preseason media day. “They’re going to be really nice mentors to a lot of our young players.
“The biggest transition is for our players to understand what we need to do on a daily basis to get better. We focus more on the process and we feel like the results will take care of themselves. But it’s going to be a long process.”
The Buffs will feature only three seniors this year in Justine Spann, Rachel Whipple, and Lillie Klemmer. While Klemmer has mostly served as a role player during her career, Spann ranked second on the team in kills last year (366) while Whipple came on strong at the libero spot while Carta-Samuels struggled with injuries.
Among those nine newcomers are seven freshmen, several of whom will be counted on to contribute immediately. Jill Schneggenburger, Kelley Levaggi, and Elissa Alcantara are outside hitters who will attempt to offset the loss of Smith, while 6-foot-2 freshman Sterling Parker could help fill the defensive void left behind by Abu.
The Buffs also add junior middle blocker Meegan Hart, who played in three matches last year at Iowa State before suffering a season-ending broken finger.
“We had Alexa and Naghede last year, and coming in as a freshman not just offensively they were really important, but they helped bring the team together and make freshmen feel a lot more like they belonged,” sophomore setter Jenna Ewert said. “They helped me a lot. As (the freshmen) get more comfortable, even in the past couple weeks they’ve gotten a lot better, a lot more confident. They’re starting to come out with their personality more on the court and I think that will be valuable to our team going forward.”