Rachel Whipple wanted to be a Colorado Buffalo.
It didn’t matter there were numerous volleyball programs outside the Pac-12 Conference that would have provided Whipple with a better opportunity to contribute immediately. It also didn’t matter that she would have to pay up in order to walk-on at CU, even while plenty of scholarship money sat on tables elsewhere.
Whipple understood nothing would come easily for her at CU. Nevertheless, the Centennial native and former standout at Smoky Hill High School waited diligently for her opportunity and eventually made the most of it. Now a key contributor for coach Jesse Mahoney’s program, and with scholarship money smoothing the ride, Whipple has evolved into one of the Buffs’ leaders. And she goes into her senior season as a player expected to set the tone this fall for a club that looks to reload with a young roster on the heels of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
“Just growing up in Colorado, I didn’t think there was anything better than playing for your home school,” Whipple said. “Every time I was up in Boulder I was just like, ‘Wow. Going to school here and getting to play on the volleyball team would be a dream come true.’ Jesse invited me on a visit and asked if I wanted to walk-on. I was like, ‘Yup!’
“It was a hard decision between schools that were willing to give me money and coming here and not getting money. But I knew I could do it. I knew it was somewhere where I could be successful.”
Whipple, a defensive specialist/libero, played sparingly as a freshman in 2016. She got on the floor for 31 matches as a sophomore, mostly as a serving specialist, while Gabby Carta-Samuels took over the libero position.
But last year, as Carta-Samuels struggled with some injuries during her senior season, Mahoney turned to Whipple. The former walk-on responded while the Buffs surged down the stretch to land a second consecutive NCAA tourney berth. Whipple tallied at least 20 digs in four of the final five matches of the season, including a 22-dig showing against South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Her season total of 419 digs was the ninth-best in program history, and despite the limited playing time during her first two seasons, Whipple enters her senior season ranked 39th in digs in CU history (546).
“Rachel is one of our captains and as cool as a success story as you can have,” Mahoney said. “The kid that stays in-state. Turns down scholarship offers out of state to walk-on. Gets a scholarship, buys into what we want to do and how we want to do it. She made herself a better player and really took over as our libero. She’s really a leader for our younger kids at that position.”
Whipple is just one of three seniors on the 2019 Buffs, along with Justine Spann and Lillie Klemmer. Youth will dominate a squad picked 10th in the Pac-12 preseason coaches’ poll, with the program welcoming seven freshmen and two transfers to the mix. At this early stage a third straight NCAA tourney berth is unlikely, but Whipple has been exceeding expectations since she arrived in Boulder.
“Obviously we want to win a lot, but I really want to see our team grow,” Whipple said. “I want to see us get better at our positions and play together as a team. Making the tournament would be amazing, but mainly I want to see us grow and set us up for successful years in the future.”