By Pat Rooney
It certainly hasn’t been a case of professional jealousy, and even calling it envy might be a stretch. Instead, as University of Denver women’s lacrosse coach Liza Kelly watched the rapid ascent of the Pioneers’ men’s program the past four seasons under Bill Tierney, Kelly’s prevailing reaction has been inspiration.
As the men’s program reached new heights—such as annual NCAA tournament appearances, the team’s first Final Four berth two years ago, and the first No. 1 national ranking in DU’s history last month—Kelly saw it as a blueprint for what her women’s program should aspire to.
Finally, Kelly’s Pioneers are there. DU will make its NCAA tournament debut on Friday afternoon, as the Pioneers take on Jacksonville in a first-round game Friday afternoon in Gainesville, Fla. (2 p.m. MDT).
“I think (coach Tierney) has set a great example of putting together a program that’s built to last,” Kelly said. “I’m on the selection committee, so I knew it was going to happen. But it was very exciting to watch the girls find out. It was the first time we watched the selection show as a team. This team was so hungry from last year, they really wanted to prove themselves.”
The NCAA tournament debut of the women’s lacrosse team highlights what will be an exciting weekend for the entire DU athletic department.
The women’s golf team, under first-year head coach Lindsay Hulwick, began play in the NCAA West Regional on Thursday. The men’s tennis team, fresh off its Western Athletic Conference title, will compete alongside the women’s lacrosse team in Gainesville as DU takes on host Florida in the Florida Regional on Friday afternoon
And, of course, the men’s lacrosse team will make its fourth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, as the Pioneers host Albany in a first-round game at sold out Peter Barton Stadium on Saturday at 5:30 p.m.
While the Pioneers’ women’s lacrosse team certainly has enjoyed a commendable level of success under Kelly—this year DU went undefeated in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation for the fourth time in Kelly’s seven-season tenure—the Pioneers’ coach has noted a different sort of hunger emanating from her squad this year. Yes, the expansion of the NCAA tournament field to 26 teams helped DU’s cause. But it’s not as if the Pioneers earned this monumental bid on a technicality.
“I don’t think we’ve played any games where we’ve had any weak links on the field,” Kelly said. “We talked about this Friday not being the finish line. I referenced March Madness and how some teams say they’re just happy to be there. That cannot be our mentality. Friday is an opportunity to prove we earned that spot.”
For DU’s veterans, Friday will be the culmination of years of sweat, perseverance and, yes, even a little blood once in a while. Sophomore Jill Remenapp (Woodbine, Md.) leads the nation with 69 assists, while fifth-year senior Kara Secora (Denver, Colo.), a Denver native, ranks 10th in the nation in goals-per-game (3.06).
“I’m so happy I came back for a fifth year so I could experience this,” said Secora, who received a medical redshirt after leg injuries wiped out her true freshman year of 2009. “I used to go to DU camps when I was little and seeing the girls there really inspired me.
“It’s nice to think how my personal story—being at those camps when I was little, playing here in high school and being recruited, and now being here and seeing how those same girls now look up to me at the camps—it’s all great to think about. Our quote has been ‘Refuse to lose.’ It’s a great feat to be in the tournament, but I think we’re hungry for more.”
Follow Pat Rooney on Twitter: @prooney07