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After NCAA tourney bubble bursts, CU Buffs lacrosse coach Ann Elliott Whidden reflects on season

Late surge, berth in Pac-12 title game not enough four fourth straight tourney bid

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There never is an easy way to experience the end of a season. Yet even a crushing playoff defeat is preferable to what the Colorado women’s lacrosse team experienced on Sunday.

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado head coach Ann Elliott Whidden.

Teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Buffaloes learned their 2021 season had come to an end when the 29-team tournament field was announced without a spot reserved for Colorado. For the first time since 2016, the Buffaloes will be watching the tournament from home.

No doubt, the Buffs improved as the season progressed, winning five of six games before losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 Conference championship game. As with any bubble team that fails to make the cut, the Buffs can look to a few missed chances early in the season, such as a season-opening loss against a Louisville team that finished 5-11, and poor luck, with three regular season games canceled due to COVID-19 issues with the Buffs’ opponents.

“It’s a hard year, because a lot of the criteria that normally is used wasn’t used, and you knew it was going to come down to a little bit of subjectivity,” CU head coach Ann Elliott Whidden said. “You weren’t sure how those decisions were going to be made. I knew we were on the bubble. I didn’t feel great one way or the other. But I thought we’d have a chance.

“We watched it, and obviously it’s disappointing to not see your name. For us, in the grander scheme, we hurt ourselves in different ways. The first couple games in our season probably hurt us in the end a little bit.”

The Buffs finished third in the Pac-12 but notched wins in two of three meetings against second-place USC, including a defeat of the Trojans in the league semifinals. CU went 1-3 against NCAA Tournament teams — going 1-1 against Denver, plus losses against Stanford and Vanderbilt — but missed a chance to pad the overall record (8-7) when both matches against Oregon (3-9) were canceled.

While Stanford earned the Pac-12’s only bid by topping the Buffs in the league title game, in the unusual 2021 season the Cardinal played just one nonconference game, while CU’s original schedule featured three of four nonconference games against eventual NCAA Tournament teams (Denver twice and Vanderbilt; the Buffs later added UC-Davis to the slate as a late replacement for the canceled regular-season game against Stanford).

“I don’t know if it’s a record thing versus just looking at not being able to compare us enough, in the few comparisons that we had, to maybe get the full picture,” Elliott Whidden said. “I think that’s hard. I think the Pac-12’s a good conference, and obviously we beat each other up a little bit. But so did all these other conferences that got the benefit of the doubt.”

Elliott Whidden was quick to compliment the perseverance of a departing senior class that mourned the death of a teammate after Julia Sarcona’s 2018 car accident; the serious lung ailment that same year that kept Aine Williams hospitalized for a month; and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic that ended the 2020 season after five games and made the 2021 season a constant trial.

“For those players that won’t return, the message was is they’ve impacted this program greatly,” Elliott Whidden said. “They faced a lot of adversity in their time here. The four years for them has been a struggle. It’s been challenging from every aspect. The impact they’ve had and the perseverance they’ve shown have impacted our program, and will impact our success in the future.”