Payton Vaughn, Jane Earley and Olivia Penoyer are using graduate years to join NCAA semifinalist Denver.

Inside Denver's Offseason Transfer Frenzy — and Ambition to Go Even Further in 2024

WHAT’S LEFT TO SAY about Denver’s defense?

The Pioneers held 22 of 23 teams to single-digit goals, dancing all the way to the NCAA women’s lacrosse semifinals and ending the season with a Division I-leading 6.22 team goals against average.

The unit overshadowed the offense — a rarity in a game hailed as being the fastest on two feet. Denver averaged 11.91 goals per game, 60th in the nation. It’s tempting to call it the team’s Achilles’ heel, but coach Liza Kelly refuted that.

“At times, they get a bad rap because they weren’t given free rein to push fast break all the time and go, go, go,” Kelly said. “They were very methodical, and that was really intentional.”

So, too, are a trio of additions ahead of the 2024 season.

In the last week, the Pioneers have bolstered their offense with three high-profile transfers — Middlebury attacker Jane Earley, Yale attacker Olivia Penoyer and Yale midfielder Payton Vaughn — signaling they’re not done making history.

“We’re building toward something here. We think we have a program that can compete for national championships. We’re almost there.”

THERE’S A JOKE AROUND USA LACROSSE that we’ve run out of “Earley” puns for headlines. This isn’t a play on words, however. Just a fact: Earley’s commitment came early — before the 2023 season, actually.

A two-time IWLCA Division III National Player of the Year, Earley led Middlebury to three NCAA championships. But she knew she would not have the option to take a fifth year at the school, which does not offer graduate studies. She sought a new home.

“It was always my dream to play college lacrosse,” said Earley, who took a gap year when Middlebury canceled its 2021 season because of the pandemic. “You only get to play four years of college lacrosse, and I wanted to play all four. That was something I couldn’t come to terms with not doing.”

Middlebury coach Kate Livesay and assistant Amy Patton encouraged Earley to look at Division I schools. Denver was one of Earley’s top picks, and Patton knew Kelly from their time coaching in New England — Kelly at Boston University and Patton at Dartmouth. They notified Kelly that Earley would contact her. Kelly beat Earley to the punch.

“They called, and it was like, ‘Oh, I was going to call you in a week,’” Earley said.

Unlike others who entered the portal after the spring season, Earley had more time, and she wanted to take it. She had flirted with playing Division I lacrosse once before, initially committing to Boston College in high school before switching to Middlebury. The appeal of playing NESCAC lacrosse like her father, Mike, a Bowdoin graduate, with the Green Mountains serving as the backdrop to her college career pulled her further north.

“I really got caught up in the 17-year-old, ‘Wow, this is so shiny and cool,’” Earley said. “I love Acacia, and BC has been incredible, but I always wanted NESCAC academics and a small-school environment. Middlebury had been the first school on my list. I’m glad I made that switch.”


A PART OF EARLEY STILL CLUNG TO THE DREAM of playing Division I lacrosse. The pandemic, which caused a two-year layoff at Middlebury, provided that chance. This time, she approached the process differently.

“Looking at schools as a 23-year-old, you realize your lacrosse experience is more the people you are surrounded by,” Earley said. “When I met them, it was like, ‘I can totally see myself spending a year absolutely loving it with you people and loving the lacrosse.’”

That’s not to say the players or staff gave any indication that winning was on the back burner.

“They did say, ‘We’re building toward something here. We think we have a program that can compete for national championships. We’re almost there,’” Earley said.

That was in the winter, before Denver made its first-ever final four run. But it convinced Earley to commit — no takebacks this time. Watching the Pioneers make history gave her more confidence she made the right call.

“They were pretty spot-on there,” Earley said. “That was really impressive to see the way they spoke about the program and backed it up.”

Meanwhile, Earley enjoyed another dominant spring. She led the Panthers with 106 points, 32 assists and 138 draws and to their 11th national title. Naysayers might qualify that production with the Roman numeral. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“Lacrosse is lacrosse,” Kelly said. “Players end up at different schools for so many reasons. You know, there are a ton of kids who are at lower-level Division I who couldn’t play at Middlebury. To me, it’s more about our needs. For Jane, she has a very specific skillset that we need right now.”

Those needs involved getting leading scorer Julia Gilbert (59 goals) help on the right side and finding a player tailor-made for an offense that prioritizes dodging. Earley’s work in the circle only bolstered her resume.

“Jane is that do-it-all attacker,” Kelly said. “She’s a high dodger. We think she and Julia Gilbert will really complement each other. She’s a natural right-handed player, so I think having her on the right side with Julia is what we are looking for. She got a lot more involved in the draw for them. She’s a heads-up player on the circle.”

And there are the intangibles. Denver went almost as far as a team can go in 2023. The Pioneers defeated defending NCAA champion North Carolina in the quarterfinals and marched undefeated onto the sport’s biggest stage, falling short of a national title by just two wins.

Earley has experience in that arena with three NCAA championship rings to show for it.

“She has the ability to keep a cool head in tight games,” Kelly said. “Her experience in final fours [and] being such a marquee player for four years is a benefit.”


Coach Liza Kelly signed a five-year contract extension with Denver in April and proceeded to lead the Pioneers to their first-ever final four.

DENVER DIDN’T STOP AT EARLEY. The Pioneers began recruiting Penoyer around the same time as Earley. The Ivy League does not allow players to take a fifth year. Penoyer led the Ivy League with 40 assists in 2023 and turned her tassel as Yale’s all-time leader in helpers with 106.

“We needed that true quarterback assister,” Kelly said. “We have some younger players capable of stepping into that role, but Olivia comes in as a person who has done that already. Not only can she help us this year, but hopefully she can take some of these players under her wing and show them the ropes in terms of vision of the field and creating an offense by attacking and looking at the same time.” S

Vaughn’s transfer was less expected. The midfielder who scooped 100 ground balls at Yale (fourth in program history) planned to move on from lacrosse after finding a job in Denver. When the job fell through, the Pioneers scooped Vaughn, hoping to fill the void left by first-team All-Big East midfielder Ellie Curry (32 goals, 12 assists, 27 ground balls, 16 caused turnovers) in multiple phases of the game.

“She fell into our laps,” Kelly said. “Having someone else come in and run the midfield for us was huge. She was a little more defensive-minded at Yale, but we’re hoping she can help us on both ends of the field.”

Getting better on both ends of the field is a focus for Kelly and the Pioneers, who are hoping to become Memorial Day weekend regulars. And she thinks both units’ veteran experience will feed into each other.

In addition to the transfers and return of Gilbert, All-American defender Trinity McPherson (42 caused turnovers, 42 ground balls) is back for a second year after transferring from Johns Hopkins before 2023. Lauren Black (37 goals), Ryan Dineen (31 goals, 26 assists), Abby Jenkins (134 draw controls) and goalie Emelia Bohi (56.5 percent) also return.

Bohi actually is a factor in Denver’s plan to become more offensive-minded.

“A few years ago, we didn’t have a lot of saves, so the offense evolved from that, whereas last year we made so many more stops that now we can ramp up an offense and take more chances,” Kelly said.

Earley, 23, has a running start getting to know her new teammates. She’s in a group chat with her fellow fifth-year players.

“The grad grandmas, we call ourselves,” Earley said. “The way we’ve already connected, I am so excited to see what we can do. We’re kind of going on an adventure out west. All of us want to make the most of it. What you see is going to be pretty cool based on these interactions.”

In an ideal world, that adventure will include a fourth NCAA championship for Earley and a first for her new teammates.

“This my little lacrosse victory lap,” she said. “If I play, great. If I don’t, great. I really just want to be surrounded by people who love the game I love, get a taste of this higher level and see what my body can do.”


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