Colorado Opens Big 12 Play with Win over Tech

Looking back now we can realize that it never would have been good enough. 8-2, 9-1, 10-0; no record the University of Colorado volleyball team could have posted in non-conference play so far this season, regardless of how flawless, would have mattered until Wednesday night.

It didn't matter that head coach Pi'i Aiu intentionally pitted the Buffs against ranked competition as early as the second game of the season to prepare his team for a long latter portion of the year in Big 12 play. It didn't matter that CU went 8-2 against that opposition, including taking home two tournament titles in three tries, and outscoring opposing teams by more than 300 combined points in the weeks since the season has begun. None of it counted until Wednesday night against Texas Tech, so the Buffs may as well have not won a single game.

In that case, Colorado is 1-0 and counting.

CU outshone the Texas Tech Lady Raiders in nearly every statistical category on their way to a 3-1; 30-22, 28-30, 30-20, 30-22 victory Wednesday night at the Coors Events Center in Colorado's first game of the season against Big 12 competition.

With the momentum from their early season success, the Buffaloes entered the matchup riding the best non-conference season-opening performance the program has seen since the 1995 team, with whom Colorado earned nine victories before beginning conference play. However in that year CU suffered four losses outside of the Big 8, including back-to-back defeats at the hands of Notre Dame, and finished a relatively mediocre 17-11 on the year. In 2003, Colorado's only losses have been at the hands of then No. 11 Penn State in the Maine Sea-Sun Invitational, and in-state rival Colorado State last week.

Early season non-conference success is nothing new to Colorado's more experienced members. This year marked the sixth time in CU's past seven seasons that the Lady Buffs have won at least five consecutive non-conference games. Colorado's magic five this year included: Rhode Island, Maine, Central Florida, Illinois State, and Denver between Aug. 31 and Sep. 6, during the team's first two tournaments, and was only broken up by the CSU loss on Sep. 9.

Still, nobody was ready to come to any conclusions about the season until they opened conference play Wednesday, least of all the players themselves.

"Texas Tech is a feisty team and it always feels good when we can beat them," team Captain Monique Gerlach said following Wednesday's win. "It's getting to be a pretty good rivalry."

The usual effects of Gerlach's play were felt in the win, but not as prominently as the effort put forth by freshman Austin Zimmerman, who had a career-high 19 kills to lead the Buffs.

"I think the preseason really got me ready and into the flow," Zimmerman said of her play in what has to be considered the biggest game of her career. "There is great leadership on the team so it was really easy to step in right away. We have a strong freshman class so it is an honor to start."

Colorado by no means walked away with any part of the victory, beginning in the first game when CU was forced to rally behind consecutive aces from Monica Vesanovic after falling behind in the initial stages of the first game of the match, to take a 7-3 advantage and forcing the Lady Raiders to use their first timeout.

CU would soon lose its momentum in much the same style they had come upon it to begin with, as the inside-outside combination of Gerlach and sophomore Nicole Carr suddenly began to misfire with Carr finding the majority of Gerlach's sets sailing out of the back of the court. Tech rallied behind its front line to an 11-11 tie, and regained momentum in the match, something they failed to do in their loss to New Mexico State last week.

The Buffs' resilient captain did her best to put the team on her shoulders to begin the second game, but Tech's defense proved tough to crack even for Gerlach, and the Lady Raiders successfully bounced back from a mid-round meltdown in the first game. Raider freshman Daneen Grisham, who was near silent in the first frame of the contest, stepped up defensively for the Lady Raiders, setting up teammates Kelly Johnson and Breanna Pursley for an attack that would give Tech a 16-13 lead midway through the second game.

CU rallied to a 21-21 tie that forced TT to call a timeout, only to have Gerlach, ranked 18th in school history with 68 career aces entering the season, serve into the net giving a crucial point and service possession to Texas Tech following the break.

The teams proceeded to trade blistering front court attacks, each formulating exceptional attack-defense sequences, but Tech seemed to have all the breaks go their way, and the Lady Raiders found the late momentum necessary to break a 27-27 tie and pull away with the victory in the second game of the match.

Colorado regained its pace opening the third game, with 5-11 freshman outside hitter Amber Nu'u nailing back-to-back crosscourt spikes to give the Buffaloes an early 3-0 advantage. Nu'u continued her influential play as the game progressed, combining with solid serving from Gerlach to expand the CU advantage to 7-3.

The Buffaloes struggled to keep momentum as the period progressed, but managed to pull away behind veteran defensive efforts from Gerlach and Carr. The Raiders rallied to within four at one point, but the CU margin had already been set along with the pace of the game. Colorado cruised to the win in what proved to be the pivotal game of the set, defeating an opponent for better than 10 points in a game for just the sixth time this season.

CU never lost the momentum they'd held since intermission, and began the fourth set hoping to close out a win over Tech without giving them the chance to come back in a potential fifth and deciding game. The Buffs fended off early offensive advances from the Lady Raiders, using their front line height advantage and superior experience to hold a 14-10 lead before Colorado rallied behind Carr to tally consecutive points, and a 16-11 advantage that the slumping Lady Raiders could not recover from. Ultimately, Colorado never trailed in either of the match's closing two games, appearing surprisingly dominant over the team that many close to the program thought would be Colorado's toughest competition in the better part of a month.

CU is set to begin its first conference road trip of the season Saturday when they travel to Lawrence for a set against the Kansas Jayhawks, and then it's on to College Station where the Buffs will finish out the brief stint against Texas A&M the following Wednesday.

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