BOULDER – When the volleyball season begins at the University of Colorado – and it won’t be long – the Coors Events Center will become The Court of Three Sisters.
Coach Liz Kritza believes having three siblings on the same team might be an NCAA Division I first. She should know; she’s followed national women’s volleyball recruiting for nearly three decades and has kept close watch on who’s gone where.
But even if three sisters have played together on the same college team, CU landing the Simpson siblings was a major recruiting coup. Taylor, a senior, is the oldest; Cierra – or “CC” – is a sophomore; and Gabby is an incoming freshman. They are from Colorado Springs (Doherty High School) and being the offspring of two former college basketball players – Rick played at Louisiana Tech, Serena at UMKC – come by their athleticism naturally.
There could be times this season when half of Kritza’s players on the court will be the Simpsons, and if that happens there shouldn’t be any slide in the Buffaloes’ performance. Each of the Simpson sisters was highly sought and the pair already at CU – Taylor, a top 10 national recruit, and Cierra, easily a top 25 prospect who might have been higher ranked had she been playing her current position – have proved themselves in NCAA play. No less is expected from Gabby, also a top 10 national prospect.
Taylor, a 6-3 outside hitter, took a circuitous route to Boulder, enrolling first at Nebraska, then transferring to Missouri before setting at CU in the spring of 2013. Cierra, a 6-0 libero (defensive specialist), had her sights set on Texas-San Antonio before a late moment of clarity about her college career brought her to the realization that she wanted to play at a higher level of competition and stay nearer home. Gabby, a 6-4 setter/hitter, initially committed to Colorado State in her sophomore season of high school, then reconsidered when she went to Minneapolis to watch CU and her sisters compete against Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the opportunity to play with her sisters was really hard to pass up," Kritza said. "Her sisters were able to show her what was going on in the program, what her life here would be like, what her future might be like.
“Last season was helpful; it offered more tangible proof, she could see our improvement. Seeing her siblings play almost all their matches on the Pac-12 Network, that kind of visibility, and playing against the best in the country – that’s what any competitive player wants.”
Plus, Gabby says her original commitment to CSU simply came far too early – but that seems to be national norm these days in volleyball, soccer and lacrosse. “If I had to go back I would have waited (to commit) until my senior year,” she said. “You’re so much more mature and you have a better picture of what you want. You get forced to make a decision so young and that’s why you have all of these people transferring because they don’t know if that’s exactly where they want to go or if that’s exactly what they want to do. I love it here.”
Of course, Kritza loves having them – even without having seen Gabby play her first college match. But she should prove to be a major contributor to a Buffs team that was 18-14 last season (9-11 in the Pac-12) and knocked off three nationally ranked opponents – No. 1 Washington, No. 11 UCLA and No. 25 Arizona – at the Coors Events Center. CU advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and defeated Iowa State (3-1) before losing in five sets (2-3) to No. 10 Minnesota in its home city.
THE SIMPSON SISTERS FIGURE last season offered a glimpse into 2014. Said Taylor: “Oh my gosh, I’m thrilled, so excited. I talk to the coaches every day; we’re talking about a Final Four and national championship. I think this year that’s something that’s achievable. With the players we have here and the freshmen coming in, I think that’s something that’s not too far off. It should be a very exciting season and I can’t wait to get going.”
Added Cierra: “I’m so excited. I honestly I don’t think I’ve been more excited about anything. Last season was awesome and in my first season here I couldn’t have asked for any better teammates to play with. But right when we got on the plane back from Minnesota (NCAA Tournament) my mind was already switching gears to this season. We have so many great players on this team; honestly, the sky’s the limit. But for us to do everything we want to do and do everything we couldn’t accomplish last season, this is the time to do it. I think the mentality this year is going to be different. I can already see that.”
The Simpson sisters haven’t played together since their time at Doherty High School, and that court time was brief. “I think I was on the court with them for five or six points,” recalled Gabby of her freshman season when Taylor was a senior and Cierra a sophomore. “I think it’ll be a good experience (at CU). I’m not only excited to get the chance to play with them, but with the whole team. I feel like this year we can accomplish something that CU probably has never seen.”
Taylor was recruited by Kritza but elected to make her pair of out-of-state stops before returning to her home state. “I just wanted to be closer to home; it’s nice to be an hour and a half away instead of 10 or 11 hours,” she said. Plus, “CC” had committed to CU “so there was a little bit of pressure to come here” and her best friend in high school – 6-2 middle blocker Kelsey English – also is a senior on the Buffs roster. “It just made the decision so much easier that CU was going to be the perfect place.”
“She went through a lot of hard stuff (at Nebraska and Missouri),” Cierra added. “Maybe it was God’s way of saying you should have stayed home in the first place. It was a crazy path she was on but everything happens for a reason. I’m happy she’s here.”
All of the sisters and Kritza expect the three Simpson’s presence on the Buffs roster to be nothing but harmonious. If there is sisterly strife – primarily of the big sister-little sister variety – Taylor and Gabby have traditionally looked to Cierra as the mediator.
“She’s always been like that – really calm and doesn’t fight with anyone,” Taylor said. “Me and ‘CC’ are really close. Me and Gabby sometimes go at it, fight a little bit about silly stuff. I would say that me and Gabby compete the most against each other. Me and ‘CC’ just kind of chill and are good friends.”
The minor skirmishes, said Gabby, “just happen sometimes, the little sisterly things. But I’d say it doesn’t happen a lot. I hope it won’t. I mean we’re doing good so far in the week I’ve been here.”
Cierra doesn’t dispute being cast as the mediator: “Yeah, that’s accurate,” she said. “Gabby is a redhead; she can be fiery tempered sometimes. Taylor is the oldest. I like to keep the peace. I think that’s kind of my role in life. I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like fighting. If I can avoid it I will. But I don’t think that should be a problem this year. Everybody is on board with each other; we know fighting is not going to work.”
She said that topic has been discussed “quite a bit” among the trio, with the consensus being, “We’re trying to focus on the team dynamic . . . it doesn’t matter that we’re three sisters on the same team. Yeah, it’s really cool, really awesome. But it’s more about the team. It’s going to take all of us to do what we want to do.”
ADDED TAYLOR: “THAT’S the question everybody’s been asking. It’s going to have its challenges within the team, but I think everyone gets along . . . it’ll be fun. I think. I hope. We played together in high school, so we kind of know how that goes. But as far as playing with other collegiate athletes it might be a little bit different.”
Kritza, offered Cierra, “kind of took a risk” in having three sisters on the roster “just because it can be disruptive because it’s like a family affair now. But I think she knows us well enough and we know ourselves well enough that we’ll take a really professional approach to it. It doesn’t matter now; we’ve got a bigger family that we have to focus on.”
If there is a risk, Kritza doesn’t see it. She said the Simpson siblings “can be one of our biggest advantages” and is sure Gabby will be welcomed onto the roster just as Taylor and “CC” were. “When it comes time to work and train, there are 15 sisters here,” Kritza said. “It’s going to be ‘team first’ regardless of whether they’re related, who’s on the court, whatever. Everything else is secondary behind the welfare of the team. This is a family, and that concept of taking pride in it, fighting for one another, is a natural fit for (the Simpsons).”
Cierra said she already sees a difference in team chemistry: “It’s awesome. That’s something we didn’t really have last year. It’s just really cool that I get to play with half of my actual family but also with my bigger CU family. Us Simpson girls are just really fortunate to be wearing Colorado on the backs of our jerseys.”
If Kritza and her program figure to be the big winners in landing the Simpson trio, Rick and Serena Simpson run a close second. Three of their four daughters – middle-schooler Riley, said Taylor, is projected to grow to 6-6 and attended CU’s volleyball camp last week – could have wound up out-of-state and made attending matches “super chaotic for them. It was going to be tough for them to get to everyone’s games. They’re absolutely thrilled now that they only have to make one stop.”
“All along they wanted all of us close to home, but that’s every parent’s dream,” added Gabby. “They were OK with us going out of state, they were OK with us going out on our own. But here, we’re about an hour away from home. That’s what my parents love about it and what I love about it. They’ve already been up here twice and I’ve only been here a week, but one time was to bring Riley to camp.”
In addition to Gabby Simpson, Kritza signed Anna Pfefferle (Northfield, Minn.) and Stephanie Shadley (Lewisville, Texas) in her 2014 recruiting class. CU’s talent level appears to be ascending, which is the preferred direction in the brutal Pac-12. “You know your program is evolving when you’re having to figure out different things (with personnel) from year to year,” Kritza said. “But that’s a good problem to have. You don’t win without a lot of good players.”
The Buffs are stockpiling their share – and this season three of them just happen to be from the same family. If it’s not unprecedented in NCAA volleyball, it is at CU. But it’s not the only reason the season could be a memorable one.