knocked off Stanford, 10-7, and Louisville in three overtimes, 11-10.

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COURTESY OF COLORADO ATHLETICS

Colorado is 4-0 in its fourth year after wins over No.11 Northwestern and UMass.

Denver, Colorado Meet in Battle of National Contenders


This week’s matchup between the only two Division I teams in Colorado isn’t just for in-state or regional bragging rights.

No. 14 Denver will play at No. 10 Colorado on Friday with both carrying national aspirations. They were both unranked in the preseason, but both are unbeaten.

Denver is 5-0, its fastest start in program history under 11-year head coach Liza Kelly. They’ve already knocked off Stanford, 10-7, and Louisville in three overtimes, 11-10.

“They went on the road for their first couple games and won them, and then when they came back they hosted a good Louisville team and beat them in overtime,” Colorado coach Ann Elliott said. “They’ve all been impressive wins.”

Elliott’s Colorado team is only in its fourth year of Division I play, but is 4-0 after opening the year with an overtime win over No. 11 Northwestern and a win over Atlantic 10 favorite and perennial NCAA tournament participant UMass.

“It’s interesting when you look at all these teams that are new programs, in their fourth year, now you have seniors that have played together from freshman year on,” Kelly said. “They have a high level of chemistry on the field. They’re confident and they know what each other are going to do. They’re an athletic group and they’re well coached. They’re a very good team.”

Colorado’s emergence began last year, when it opened the 2016 season with its first-ever win over Denver. The Pioneers won the teams’ first two matchups in 2014 and 2015 handily. Now the teams are in different conferences, with Denver sliding over to the Big East and Colorado staying in the MPSF.

“There’s a certain amount of pride, but I look at it in the bigger picture for the end of the season,” Kelly said. “I’d like to see two teams from Colorado in the NCAAs. I’d like to not be playing each other first round, but I think that’s a great message if we both can make it.”

Denver's roster features players from 12 different states plus Ontario, Canada, but only one player from Colorado. Colorado has eight in-state players, and draws players from 15 different states. Denver’s leading scorer happens to be its only Colorado product — sophomore Kendra Lanuza. She’s just two points away from equaling her point production from a year ago, and epitomizes the growth in the Pioneers since last year’s 9-9 season.

“We’ve been really impressed with how hard they’ve been playing,” Elliott said. “They are playing with more confidence. They have been competing for everything.”


“There’s a certain amount of pride, but I look at it in the bigger picture for the end of the season. I’d like to see two teams from Colorado in the NCAAs." - Denver coach Liza Kelly


Kelly credits much of her team’s fast start to the same maturation that has helped Colorado. Instead of having four freshmen and a sophomore on offense, Denver has four sophomores and a junior. Julia Feiss, like Lanuza, is another sophomore who’s made a big jump – from three points last year to 16 already this year.

“A lot of times we had six freshmen starting for us last year,” Kelly said. “The experiences they got last year has helped mold them into who they are now. They all put so much effort into the offseason with not being satisfied with where we were as a team and where they were as individuals. The work ethic and accountability has really been tremendous with this whole group. Someone like Kendra and Julia, it’s truly paid off.”

Denver is improved from a year ago, when one of the biggest issues was getting the ball back. While they were a top-30 team in caused turnovers per game last season, they were ranked 104th out of 110 in draw controls, but Ellie Knott has helped them climb to 31st this year.

“They have a girl who is very good on the draw,” Elliott said. “She started taking them for them toward the end of last year and that made a difference for them at the end of the season. And they’re scrappy. They play so hard and compete for everything.”

It has helped Denver rise again. The Pioneers were down the last two years after putting together glistening records of 18-3 in 2013 and 19-2 in 2014 and going to NCAA tournament second round.

“In my mind, what has always gotten us there is our goaltending and our defense,” Kelly said. “If they can do what they’re supposed to do, it gives our attack more chances with the ball. This year we’re still young down there, but we have a lot of kids that want it and are playing with more confidence than last year. That helps. We need to walk on the field and own it a bit more, We need a little more swagger.”

They aspire to be like the Denver men — a consistent top-10 program — and draw inspiration from their male counterparts, who won the NCAA championship in 2015 under coach Bill Tierney, the first program from a non-traditional lacrosse area to do so.

“It affects us in just the best ways possible,” Kelly said. “Bill is really great to work with. He’s so personable, so friendly and open with the girls and so supportive with the program. That trickles down. I’ve worked with coaches who it’s all about them and their team, and you don’t get that sense from him at all. Him really wanting to see us be successful is a great start, and obviously their success, it put Denver on the map on the lacrosse world.

We hear, ‘Your boys team won this, this and this. How are you guys?’ It motivates you. It’s not just our men’s lacrosse. Our men’s hockey right now is No. 1. Our gymnastics is top 10. Swimming and diving is just crushing it. There’s success just bleeding out of DU right now, and everyone feels like we want to be a part of that.”

Colorado hasn’t been to these heights before, and time will tell if the Buffaloes can maintain their level. It’s all new for them, and they are cautiously optimistic. The Denver women have put together impressive seasons before, but they’re trying to get to the next level and show they can sustain that success.

“Talent is definitely a part of it,” Kelly said. “I felt like a couple years ago, when we went down to Florida and played them in the NCAAs, that was kind of a wake-up call for us, just the athleticism they have in the field. After that game, we went back to look at how we were recruiting and that’s what’s on the field right now — a team that we want to be able to compete with players at the top level.”

Denver feels perched to make an impact at the national level, and an up-and-coming Colorado team provides a challenge and an opportunity to build on its fast start.

“After how we played in the fall when we went back east and how hard we worked, I felt this is what we’re capable of doing,” Kelly said. “We’re more athletic than we’ve been in the past, we’ve got more depth and the time and effort they put in during the offseason has made a difference.”








Northwestern keeps it close

If Kelly Amonte Hiller wasn’t going gray already, the start of the season surely would do it for the Northwestern lacrosse coach.

Northwestern’s first four games have been decided by a total of five goals, and it lost each of its last two games in overtime to slip to 2-2.

“We’re learning lessons and we’re growing with each game that passes,” Amonte Hiller said. “When you’re in those tight games, you learn more.”

After two weeks of practice with an emphasis on finishing games, Northwestern goes back on the road to play No. 4 Syracuse at Hofstra on Friday and at No. 5 Stony Brook on Sunday in a huge weekend.

“Sometimes it takes a few setbacks to get you ready for that moment,” Amonte Hiller said. “What better time than playing two teams that are virtually top five?”

Northwestern thought it had chances to win at No. 10 Colorado and at No. 7 USC. Both ended in 11-10 losses. They had edged No. 12 Notre Dame, 14-13, at South Bend, Ind.

“We are a really good team,” Amonte Hiller said. “Our team believes in itself. I just don’t think we had the results, a couple of tough breaks. We’re ready for this competition. That’s the beauty of having tough competition – right around the corner is your next opportunity.”

Northwestern still has to travel to No. 2 North Carolina on March 19, one of the seven road games in their first nine games, and six of those teams are in the top 12. Amonte Hiller isn’t backing off her scheduling.

“It helps us grow,” she said. “It is a challenge and you have to be mentally strong to be able to play a tough schedule like that. If we want to be great, that’s what we have to do.”

Syracuse reloads

Syracuse graduated 55 percent of its scoring, an NCAA record-setter on the draw control, a standout defender, two terrific midfielders and its starting goalie, but the Orange aren’t in a rebuild as much as a reload mode.

The Orange had to replace All-American attackers Kayla Treanor and Halle Majorana, staples in the midfield Erica Bodt and Kelly Cross, a top defender in Mallory Vehar and goalie Allie Murray. They have done so with a mix of freshmen as well as several players developed in their program plus a significant transfer, Alie Jimerson, from Albany.

Syracuse made it look easy in their first four games before finally surviving a test in a last-second 13-12 win over Albany on Monday to improve to 5-0. The game-winner came on Riley Donahue’s free position, and the junior is the team’s new scoring leader, followed by last year’s ECAC Rookie of the Year, sophomore Nicole Levy. Freshman Emily Hawryschuk, redshirt freshman Mary Rahal and juniors Kelzi Van Atta and Neena Merola make up the Orange’s top six scoring leaders, but they have 11 players with at least four goals.

Syracuse also hasn’t had difficulty replacing Treanor, who set the NCAA Division I single-season draw control record with 217 last year. Freshman Morgan Widner leads the nation with 11.8 draw controls per game. Asa Goldstock is another highly regarded freshman who has stepped in flawlessly at goalie.

“They just have a lot of depth,” Amonte Hiller said. “They have a lot of new players stepping in. They’re playing a lot of people. They’re getting production from so many people. That makes them pretty dynamic. On the defensive end, having a new goalie, she’s done a fantastic job for them.”

No. 11 Northwestern could be Syracuse’s toughest test yet. The Wildcats are the first team from the current top 20 that the Orange have faced, and Boston College is the only opponent that they have faced with a winning record.




PHOTO BY GREG WALL

Riley Donahue (above) leads Syracuse with 11 goals and 10 assists on the season.


Climbing the Ivy

Could Dartmouth or Yale challenge for a top-four spot in the Ivy League tournament this year over No. 8 Penn, No. 9 Princeton, No. 17 Cornell or Harvard? Dartmouth has started fast under new coach Danielle Spencer. The Big Green are 3-0, but their schedule ramps up in March and will show if they’re true contenders. They play Wednesday at Boston University, open Ivy League play at Columbia on Sunday and then host USC and Princeton in the final two weeks of the month.

Yale is 3-1, with its only loss being a narrow defeat at Albany. Hope Hanley is having a breakout senior season. She passed her points production from last year in the Bulldogs’ first three games. Her 13 goals nearly equals her career high of 15 set last year, and her 15 assists are seven more than she had in her entire career coming into this season. Yale, too, faces back-to-back tests at Harvard on Saturday and hosting Stony Brook on March 8.

GAMES TO WATCH

Here are some key games to keep an eye on this weekend (all times Eastern):

No. 17 Cornell at No. 8 Penn, Saturday, 1 p.m.

These two met in last year’s Ivy League tournament final, with Cornell holding on for an 11-10 victory. They return to same site of that thriller, with the winner taking an early Ivy lead.

No. 19 Virginia Tech at No. 13 Duke, Saturday, 1 p.m.

Virginia Tech wraps up a big week for further establishing its turnaround. After taking on 4-1 Elon on Wednesday, the Hokies face Duke for the chance to go 2-0 in the ACC, while Duke is looking to avoid an 0-2 ACC start.

Louisville at No. 12 Notre Dame, Saturday, 1 p.m.

Notre Dame has won six straight since its only loss, including edging No. 13 Duke in the Irish’s ACC opener. Louisville’s lone loss came in overtime, and a win in their ACC opener could push them back into the top 20.

No. 6 Penn State at Loyola, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Loyola struggled to an 0-2 start heading into Wednesday’s game at No. 9 Princeton, but a win over Penn State would right the Greyhounds’ season quickly. Penn State just wants to keep rolling after a hard-fought win over No. 17 Cornell.

No. 3 Florida at No. 16 Towson, Sunday, 12 p.m.

A dangerous matchup for Florida, which barely squeaked by 0-3 Jacksonville. Towson lost its first two games by a combined three goals to No. 5 Stony Brook and No. 6 Penn State, then won its next three convincingly.