CU Buffs volleyball renews Wyoming rivalry for season opener

Senior outside hitter Justine Spann ready to lead offense

Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Justine Spann is one of just three seniors on the Buffs’ roster

The Colorado volleyball team goes into the 2019 campaign on the heels of two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. It’s unlikely, though certainly not impossible, the Buffaloes will continue that streak this fall.

Like any of the Buffs, Justine Spann would prefer to keep that run intact. However, as one of just three seniors on the Buffs’ roster dominated by first-year players, Spann understands success might not necessarily be measured in wins and losses this fall. Not that winning doesn’t remain Spann’s primary goal, but as the new-look Buffs get set to host Wyoming Friday night in the season opener, Spann and her teammates will be focused on defying expectations that had the Buffs ranked 10th in the Pac-12 Conference preseason coaches’ poll.

“We’re the underdogs and we’re excited about that,” said Spann, an outside hitter from Chandler, Ariz. “There’s nothing to lose, honestly. You have nothing to even worry about. The worst thing that can happen is that what everyone predicted happens. Our offense, we don’t do a lot. We are a very simple team. But at the same time, if you simplify things,  you’re going to get teams that are out of whack and all over the place. As long as we can keep teams out of system, we definitely can succeed.”

Friday night’s contest will mark the first game of the Buffs Invitational, and if the lure of the CU-Colorado State football game in Denver Friday is too tempting for volleyball fans, on Saturday coach Jesse Mahoney’s squad also will host Long Island (10 a.m.) and UC-Santa Barbara (7 p.m.).

Spann is just one of three seniors this season, joining libero Rachel Whipple and reserve middle blocker Lillie Klemmer. Spann was a key contributor on the Buffs’ NCAA Tournament teams of the past two seasons, particularly last year. A starter in every match, Spann finished the year ranked second on the team in kills (366) and digs (328).

Of course, in each of the past two seasons, Spann played alongside Naghede Abu and Alexa Smith, the Buffs’ leaders defensively and offensively, respectively, during those NCAA tourney runs. With those players having graduated, Spann will be counted on to assume a greater leadership role as a senior.

“I think J is excited for that opportunity. She’s excited to carry the load,” Mahoney said. “She wants to take the swing. She wants to get the ball at crunch time that maybe (Smith) got last year. And she’s prepared herself all spring for that and this summer. We’re trying to keep her as healthy as possible. Lex took a billion swings and we had to bubble-wrap her during the week a little bit. J is going to take a bunch of swings, and we’re going to have to bubble-wrap her to make sure she’s healthy.”

The Buffs already have lost one of their few veterans, as junior setter Brynna DeLuzio will miss the season due to a knee injury. With seven freshmen alongside Iowa State transfer Meegan Hart, a 6-foot-2 sophomore middle blocker, don’t be surprised if Mahoney utilizes a number of different rotations this weekend to gauge how the newcomers react when the lights go on.

“There’s several spots I feel like are fairly set in stone, and then there’s a couple spots that I think we’ll see different people see time in those spots as we go through the preseason to see how everyone reacts to competition,” Mahoney said. “I have an idea how we’re going to start our match on Friday night, but that doesn’t mean that’s how we’re going to end it.”

Wyoming Cowgirls at Colorado volleyball

Game time: Friday, 6 p.m., CU Events Center.

Records (2018): Wyoming 20-11; Colorado 18-14.

Notes: The Buffs hadn’t played Wyoming in five years — and just once in 19 years — before suffering a five-set loss in Laramie last season. This is Wyoming’s first visit to Boulder since 1999…The Buffs have never played their first opponent on Saturday, Long Island, and haven’t played their Saturday night opponent, UC-Santa Barbara, since 1997…The other games on the schedule for the Buffs Invitational at the CU Events Center: Friday — UC Santa Barbara vs. Long Island, 3 p.m.; Saturday — UC Santa Barbara vs. Wyoming, noon; CU travels to Iowa next week to take on the Hawkeyes and Illinois in the annual Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge.