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Colorado head coach JR Payne reacts to the lack of a call during the second half of a second-round college basketball game against Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)
Colorado head coach JR Payne reacts to the lack of a call during the second half of a second-round college basketball game against Duke in the NCAA Tournament, Monday, March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Commencement always sets a bow on every academic calendar. Same with collegiate athletics calendars.

Personally, in college sports I’ve always preferred “best of the best” lists in May as opposed to year-end awards that culls information from two different academic years. And the 2022-23 cycle once again featured commendable highs for CU athletics, particularly in women’s sports.

The volleyball team finished strong to return to the NCAA Tournament. This week, the tennis team played in the postseason for the first time in 16 years. And the women’s basketball team turned in a historic season with its first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years.

After unveiling these BuffZone honors last year and receiving a positive response, we’re making it an annual affair. And so, the best of the best from CU sports in 2022-23.

Men’s Athlete of the Year: Filip Forejtek, skiing

Barring an unexpected result at the upcoming NCAA outdoor track and field championships, Forejtek will own the only Colorado NCAA title from the 2022-23 campaign. Leading the way for a CU skiing program that weathered the dismissal of former coach Andy LeRoy on the eve of the season, Forejtek won his second consecutive national championship in the giant slalom in early March. He became the first athlete in the decorated history of the CU program to achieve that feat, and is the third overall in NCAA history to win the event in back-to-back years. Forejtek earned his sixth All-American honor, his fourth as a first team selection.

Honorable mention: Tristan da Silva, men’s basketball; Dylan McDermott, men’s golf.

Women’s Athlete of the Year: Jaylyn Sherrod and Quay Miller, women’s basketball

How do you pick one over the other? You don’t. CU’s twin first team All-Pac-12 selections spurred the Buffs’ run to their first Sweet 16 berth in 20 years. In conference games, Miller ranked fifth in the Pac-12 with 9.6 rebounds per game while adding 13.6 points per game. Miller also improved her 3-point percentage from .276 to .330 while becoming the first CU player in 10 years to post a double-double in an NCAA Tournament game with 17 points and 14 rebounds in the Buffs’ second-round win at Duke. Sherrod supplied the grit and floor leadership throughout the season while leading the Pac-12 in assists (5.0 per game).

Honorable mention: Hanna Abrahamson, skiing; Antonia Balzert, tennis; Meegan Hart, volleyball; Bailey Hertenstein, cross country; Civana Kuhlmann, soccer.

Coach of the Year: JR Payne, women’s basketball

After leading the Buffs to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament, and first Sweet 16 berth since 2003, Payne is a repeat winner of this honor. After reaching the ’22 tournament, the Buffs easily could have taken a step backward after the graduation of Mya Hollingshed, the eighth overall selection in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Payne made certain that didn’t happen, leading CU to a 25-9 record and a third-place finish in the Pac-12, the program’s best conference finish since 2004. With Sherrod, Miller and the bulk of the rotation set to return next season, Payne (with a fresh contract extension in hand) has the program primed for sustained success.

Honorable mention: Jesse Mahoney, volleyball; Anthony Pham, tennis; Jana Weinberger, skiing.

Game of the Year: CU Buffs WBB 61, Duke 53 (OT; Second round NCAA Tournament)

The women hoopsters had several thrillers to choose from, but this was the most monumental. Playing on the Blue Devils’ home floor, CU outplayed the hosts down the stretch to send the Buffs to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years. The Buffs survived a potential winning 3-pointer by Duke at the regulation buzzer, then held the Blue Devils to an 0-for-7 mark from the floor in overtime.

Honorable mention: CU WBB 77, No. 8 Utah 67 (Jan. 6); CU WBB 73, No. 8 UCLA 70 (OT; Jan. 27); CU Buffs MBB 78, No. 11 Tennessee 66 (Nov. 13); CU Buffs volleyball 3, No. 21 Washington 0 (Nov. 18); CU Buffs football 20, Cal 13 (OT; Oct. 15).

Top comeback: Hannah Cardenas, women’s soccer

After enduring three ACL surgeries, Cardenas briefly considered retiring due to medical reasons. Instead, the veteran defender put her head down and got back on the pitch for the Buffs, playing in 19 games last fall. Despite missing one full season and the bulk of two others, Cardenas still appeared in 69 games for the Buffs, with 64 starts.

Honorable mention: Charlotte Whittaker, women’s basketball.

Thanks for Everything Award: Terrance Lang, football

Let Lang represent all the veteran football Buffs who endured trying times in Boulder. Lang played under three head coaches (Mike MacIntyre, Mel Tucker, Karl Dorrell) and two interim head coaches in Kurt Roper and Mike Sanford (Darrin Chiaverini also took a stint in the interim role between Tucker and Dorrell, but didn’t coach any games). Lang played the good soldier through all the adversity, appearing in all 53 games between 2018 and 2022, recording eight sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.