BOULDER -- Back when Anne Stuller was at Fairview, the Colorado women's soccer team was a frequent visitor to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they went six straight seasons from 2003-2008, and that's the type of program Stuller thought she was getting into.
Since then, the cupboard's been bare. In 2011, her sophomore season, the Buffs won just four games, and last year they climbed back to a respectable .500 but still struggled mightily in the Pac-12.
So it was pretty surreal for her on Monday afternoon she and her teammates all gathered together to hear their fate -- whether they were in or out -- of the NCAAs. Not too far into the selection show, they were called, and the ensuing eruption from the room broadcast the elation of hard work paying off for the 12-6-2 Buffs.
"To be a part of that, it felt so amazing the whole week," said Stuller, one of five seniors on the 2013 roster. "I'm the type of person where, I just had a bad feeling inside leading up to (the selection show), just like 'We're going to get screwed, we're not going to get called.' When I heard our name, I became emotional and felt something I haven't really felt before.
"To be able to share the moment with Hayley (Hughes), Lizzy (Herzl) and Annie (Brunner) and Betsy (Builder), it's so special. To able to go to the tournament after struggling together through all the hard times we've had, to be able to see our hard work pay off feels really good."
Stuller was not used to losing when she first came on to the Buffs, having played for the Knights' always-competitive program as well as the Colorado Storm. Her skills as a scorer and her strengths as an attacker have always been present, but that had not translated to success until head coach Danny Sanchez arrived last year.
The former two-time Class 5A player of the year said that Sanchez has made all the difference in the world to the program, but also to helping her establish herself within it.
"He's changed the mentality, he's changed attitudes and he's changed the way we play," Stuller said. "We are a better team that plays really good soccer, scores on our opportunities and we defend hard.
"I had a pretty disappointing first two years here personally, just playing all over the place and hadn't really found my niche on the field. When (Sanchez) came in, he just established me as a forward and I tried to learn as much as I can. I think all the hard work we've all been putting into it is paying off, and it's showing how good my teammates are around me that I'm passing it off and they're scoring more."
Her senior season has been filled with lasting memories, and on Tuesday another one was made as she was named to the All Pac-12 second team, a result of her accumulating eight goals and seven assists this season. Her 23 points has nearly doubled her career total and she put herself in the CU record books this year with single-season marks for shots taken (86) and shots on goal (50) ... with at least one more game to add to those totals.
For Sanchez, who coached Division II Metro State to a national championship before heading to Wyoming, Stuller has transformed into a more complete player, one that will lead the way when the Buffs take on the University of Denver in the first round Saturday on the DU campus.
"She's been nothing but first class with the way she trains and prepares, and I think that has shown itself out on the field," Sanchez said. "That gives me and the rest of our staff a lot of satisfaction seeing a player that's that committed to the University of Colorado has an opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament.
"We challenged her to get more teammates involved ... so I think she's really diversified herself and made herself more dynamic than she was last year even."
While Stuller and the Buffs have enjoyed a turnaround season, beating the Pioneers is going to be no small task. Denver (14-1-1) received a No. 4 seed and already boasts a win over the Buffs, 3-0 on Sep. 15. In Stuller's time, CU has never claimed victory over DU, and that means several of her former teammates have bragging rights.
Four former Fairview players will be on the pitch on Saturday, including Stuller and Nikki Machalek on the CU side and Cassidy Larson and Kaitlin Higgins for DU. Larson is one of Stuller's best friends, she said, adding some intrigue to the first round contest.
The last time they met, the city of Boulder was mired in the flood disaster, forcing the game to be played at DU instead of Prentup Field. Stuller said the mindset this time around might be a little more soccer-oriented.
"Just gonna take a couple goals in the back of the net and defending hard. We're not far off from them," she said. "We're looking forward to showing the state what a good team we are."
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