The destination certainly wasn’t unattainable. Yet just a few short weeks ago, it certainly seemed improbable for the Colorado volleyball team.
On Nov. 10, the Buffs suffered a brutal five-set home loss against a 14th-ranked Oregon squad, despite holding a 19-9 lead in the fourth set; a victory in the set would have clinched the match for CU.
It was the sort of setback that could have taken the wind out of a team. Instead, the Buffs rallied to win four of their final five matches, including a pair of key road wins, to play their way back into NCAA Tournament contention.
That tournament berth became official on Sunday, as the Buffs received the 19th bid in program history with a first-round matchup against fifth-seeded Rice on Thursday at Baylor at 3:30 p.m. MT. The winner will play either fourth-seeded Baylor or Stephen F. Austin in the second round on Friday.
“This is a really special team,” CU head coach Jesse Mahoney said. “In the COVID era, you’re seeing a lot of teams like this with kids that are in their fifth and sixth seasons. I don’t feel like there was a time in this season where we felt stressed or that we have to win this one, or we have to win that one. We just kind of went out and played really good volleyball.
“One of the things we did well this year was we were good on the road. We had some good road wins and we hadn’t done that in some years past. That Oregon (loss) was a little bit of a heartbreaker because we felt like it was within our grasp. But we responded, and I think our team and our players really had faith in each other and they kind of willed themselves through the second half of the season and got better.”
It is the third NCAA Tournament bid in seven seasons under Mahoney. The Buffs reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in program history in 2017 and returned to the tournament the following year, losing to South Carolina in the first round.
The Buffs (20-10, 12-8 Pac-12) finished in a tie for fifth in the Pac-12 and are one of six league teams to land bids in the 64-team tournament field. That list includes Pac-12 champion Stanford, which earned one of the four No. 1 seeds, along with USC (6), Washington State (7), Washington, Oregon (3) and the Buffs. CU finished 3-8 against NCAA Tournament teams, with a 3-7 mark against the other Pac-12 entrants plus an early-season road loss at Arkansas.
The league’s six bids tied the Big Ten and trailed only the seven landed by the SEC.
Northern Colorado, which earned the automatic berth out of the Big Sky Conference, will take a school-record 14-match win streak into its first-round date against second-seeded San Diego.
“Last year I knew it was no question I was going to come back for sure. Unfinished business,” CU sixth-year middle blocker Meegan Hart said. “It means a lot. It’s exciting. All the hard work that we’ve put in…those days that are just tough, or you question this or that, or you’re getting old and all the aches and pains, it’s worth it. I’m really proud of our team.”