2022 NCAA Lacrosse Preview: No. 15 Denver (Women)

PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ATHLETICS

Sam Thacker is Denver's glue player, according to head coach Liza Kelly.


The 2022 college lacrosse season is nearly upon us. As is our annual tradition, we’re featuring every team ranked in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Preseason Top 20.

Check back to USALaxMagazine.com each weekday this month for new previews, scouting reports and rival analysis.

NO. 15 DENVER

2021 Record: 16-2 (10-0 Big East)
Final Ranking (2021): No. 17
Coach: Liza Kelly (16th season)

The 2022 Denver Pioneers appear to be a classic template of their teams past: grind-it-out defense, timely offense and a general frustration to play against.

For coach Liza Kelly, that output encapsulates her fun-loving team.

“We have a good time,” the 16th-year head coach said. “We really try to have fun at practice around each other, and we have a set of captains that emulate this idea of work hard, play hard. They’re enjoyable to be around.”

Denver’s strength lies in their defense. Three of the team’s four captains are defenders, and arguably the team’s second-best player is a junior who will be relied upon to front a brand-new goalie.

Graduate student Sammie Morton and seniors Kailee Lammers and Madeleine Mason are the defensive captains, and they’re joined by the 2021 Big East Tournament’s most outstanding player, junior Sam Thacker. While there’s consistency, Kelly points out that graduating a conference goalie of the year and All-American caliber player like Molly Little, who has remained with the program in a volunteer role, creates a challenge.

“Because we play a zone, it’s a unit defense,” Kelly said. “Even changing one part changes the whole. We’re trying to be a new team this year and not be compared to teams and players in the past.”

There are questions about in the cage. For the second time in three years, the Pioneers have graduated the Big East’s top goalkeeper. Assistant coach Brittany Read will be expected to work her magic to get either junior Victoria Macres or senior Chloe Lewis into form like Carson Gregg or Amelia Cole.

“They’ve really worked hard and competed hard this fall,” Kelly said. “That’s our hope, whoever wins this spot is in competition for [Big East Goalkeeper of the Year] at the end of the year.”

NIKE/USAL PRESEASON TOP 20
TEAM PREVIEWS

1. Boston College

2. North Carolina

3. Syracuse

4. Northwestern

5. Stony Brook

6. Maryland

7. Notre Dame

8. Duke

9. Loyola

10. Florida

11. Virginia

12. James Madison

13. Princeton

14. Stanford

15. Denver

16. Rutgers

17. Drexel

18. Jacksonville

19. UConn

20. Penn

Further questions remain up front. Bea Behrins, another graduate student, is one of the Big East’s top offensive threats in 2022. How she guides a youthful attack will help determine Denver’s success.

“She’s a really fun, easy player,” Kelly said. “She really goes with the flow and creates an offense based on what the defense is doing. It’s very Zen-like. … She doesn’t fight it. She creates with what’s in front of her, and that makes her a hard kid to defend.”

Kelly has high expectations for juniors Julie Gilbert and Ellie Curry to step up along with senior Kayla DeRose and first-year midfielder Lauren Black. Although solidifying where the goals come from is important, shoring up how the ball gets into the offensive end will give that young attack added opportunities to score.

In 2021, Denver strung together a 16-game winning streak that came between the team’s only losses of the season. A high-powered offense rolled through the Big East unharmed — even with an added test from UConn — before the Pios fell to eventual national semifinalist Northwestern in the second round.

That game featured a glaring weakness that must be addressed in 2022: draws. Northwestern captured 21 of 26 controls in that game. For the season, Denver was outdrawn by 50.

“The draw was something that we really struggled with last year,” Kelly said. “We had a freshman taking it, she did a great job, but it was an area that got pushed to the backburner last year. It’s a focus area that we can have great improvement.”

And Kelly will be looking for that improvement with immediate effect against proven competition. Games against teams with NCAA tournament and championship aspirations include Louisville, Stanford, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Michigan, Fairfield and Drexel, all before Big East play in April.







TOP RETURNERS

Bea Behrins, A, Gr.

The Big East’s 2021 Attacker of the Year, Behrins is poised to lead a generally inexperienced offense in 2022. Behrins has averaged just under 4 points per game since the beginning of 2020 with 101 points in 26 games.

Sammie Morton, D, Gr.

Another graduate student captain, Morton will be anchoring an experienced defensive group. The 2021 All-Big East second-team selection is going to be called on to lead Denver’s zone and move the ball in transition.

Sam Thacker, D, Jr.

Denver’s glue player, Thacker was instrumental for the Pioneers in an undefeated Big East campaign and eventual tournament championship, where she was named most outstanding player. In year three, Thacker will be counted on again to help lead the defense.

KEY ADDITION

Lauren Black, M, Fr.

Black is a four-time medalist in Canadian box lacrosse, including a gold medal in 2019, and was named the 2019 B.C. Lacrosse Association Player of the Year.

“She’s just nasty,” Kelly said. “She’s naturally left-handed, goes both ways, quick and hard to guard, a sneaky, shifty kid.”

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE

Ellie Curry, M, Jr.

Curry’s influence stretches from crease to crease. A ball hawk on defense, she can transition quickly and throw in a few goals, too. For a team lacking returning offense, Curry will help fill a void as a true midfielder.

ENEMY LINES

What rival coaches say about the Pioneers:

“Their defense is led by their head coach, Liza. When you see that, having the head coach leading her defense for years and years, you always know going against Denver, that’s what you’re going to have to deal with. You’re going to have to deal with just this really tough defense that likes to cause turnovers and make you uncomfortable. You know you’re going to have to prepare for that. They return a lot on their defensive end. I know they’ve lost a lot offensively, but they return pretty much their entire defense. We are aware of that.”

“I’m really happy that Molly Little is no longer playing. Liza is a really, really good coach. She game plans and she scouts. I think they’ll be interesting. They’re going to be pretty strong. They have some young sleepers who were injured last year and will be back.”

BEYOND THE BASICS
POWERED BY LACROSSE REFERENCE

0.548

Hannah Liddy and Kailey Conry combined for 61 percent of the Pios’ assists last year. Next woman up is Bea Behrins, who figures to be the primary distributor this season. Fortunately for Denver, she’s got an 80th-percentile career assist-to-turnover ratio and a steadily improving individual turnover rate. — Zack Capozzi

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