For the bulk of the 2020-21 academic year — from the moment the typical fall schedule was scuttled last summer through the completion of the highly atypical spring slate — volleyball was the sanctuary and release for a Colorado team dealing with a year of unprecedented adversity.
As the possibility of a berth in a tightened NCAA Tournament gradually became a less likely reality, that sanctuary started to wear on the Buffs.
That was the general assessment offered by CU coach Jesse Mahoney days after the Buffs completed the 2020/spring 2021 season with a pair of losses at USC. The Buffs finished with an 8-12 mark in an all-Pac-12 schedule, including an 0-9 record on the road. It was just the second time in program history, and the first since 2007, the Buffs went an entire season without a road win.
“Volleyball was the only good and fun thing for our team for a long portion of this year, and when it wasn’t fun from a winning and losing standpoint, it became harder for us,” Mahoney said. “When your refuge is playing volleyball, and your refuge isn’t going good, I think it was tough for us.
“That, and the fact we couldn’t win on the road…last year we were 1-9 (on the road in Pac-12), this year we were 0-10, that’s something we have to figure out and be better than we were.”
CU was a young team in terms of senior leadership — while senior middle blocker Rachael Fara is planning to move on, the Buffs’ only other senior, outside hitter Leah Clayton, is expected to return to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility relief in hopes of enjoying a closer-to-normal final season.
Under Mahoney, who completed his fifth season at CU, the Buffs often have displayed a knack for finishing strong, as was the case with the 2017 and 2018 NCAA Tournament teams. The Buffs were denied that chance in a shortened campaign, and with the NCAA Tournament cut in half this season from 64 teams to 32, the chance to prolong the season ended earlier than planned for the Buffs.
Mahoney also noted it was a difficult season to spur the development of younger players, given the compressed preseason and shortened schedule.
“I’m really happy that we got 20 matches in and I’m really proud our team for staying healthy throughout the entire season,” Mahoney said. “I think our players did a fantastic job of kind of staying in our volleyball bubble. We didn’t always have the results we wanted, and not getting an opportunity to play any nonconference exasperated that.
“In a normal year, where we have 64 teams in the tournament and we play nonconference, we’re one match away, maybe two matches away, from being in the NCAA Tournament.”
While the Buffs didn’t finish with the record they wanted, if there is a silver lining it’s that the spring campaign can be looked at as a sort of live rehearsal for what is expected to be a more traditional 2021 fall schedule. After struggling through a few nagging injuries over the past few months, CU is expected to return the bulk of its rotation, and will add a talented recruiting class with more additions likely over the spring and summer.
“To be honest, we were not particularly healthy this year, and the grind of the spring was particularly tough on a couple of our players,” Mahoney said. “I’m looking forward to our players getting healthy, taking some time off physically and some time off mentally, and kind of ramping into next year in a little more of a normal way. We have a couple top-50 type players coming in that will have the opportunity, we hope, to make an impact with us pretty quickly.”