Summit League Lacks Rivalries

Illustration: How DU fans see the Summit League rivalries.

Rivalries go beyond the act of competition. Rivalries are compelling and appeal to fans’ rational and irrational emotions. Beating a rival counts for more than a regular league or conference win. The winner gets bragging rights. More people want to attend those games. If you miss a rivalry game to go to a wedding, during vows you check your phone for live updates from your pew.

One of the challenges with DU’s membership in the Summit League has been the inability to develop a solid rivalry with a school(s) in the league. Many DU fans find it difficult to identify with many of the universities in the league – plus, the conference affiliation is relatively new (2013). Some of this has to do with geography and some of it has to do with ‘like schools’ (i.e. small, private).

Denver athletics’ biggest rivals today are the long-held hockey rivalries with Colorado College and North Dakota. There are over five decades worth of championship history between these schools in the old WCHA. In basketball, DU plays regional foes such as Wyoming and Colorado State. In lacrosse, the Denver men have emerging rivalries with fellow national powers Notre Dame and Duke – but it is uncertain how long these rivalries will hold depending on national prominence and future success. Women’s lacrosse has local league competitor CU and MPSF power Stanford. Of course, in skiing Denver has fellow national power CU as a bitter rival and women’s soccer has CU as well. In gymnastics, DU’s main rival is another mountain west region power Utah.

So does DU have a significant rivalry in the Summit League?

The University of Nebraska-Omaha is the closest logical rival for DU in the Summit. They are the only other school in the Summit League that fields a hockey team, and both schools compete in many of the same sports in the Summit league. Geographically, in midwestern terms, the two are relatively close – just 500 miles apart. A fair number of Omaha and Nebraska natives live in Denver so there is a local base of fans.

Yet, DU athletic teams routinely beat the Mavericks in most sports (Denver ended UNO’s 2015-16 seasons in hockey, men’s basketball, women’s soccer, and volleyball). That makes it hard to categorize the DU-UNO matchup a rivalry.

In hockey, UNO held the advantage in 2014-2015 when the Mavericks advanced to the Frozen Four. However, this season DU hockey padded their resume with a decisive 6-0 record against the Mavs. In the league playoffs, DU punched their ticket to the NCHC playoffs against the Mavs in a series sweep to crush any hope the Mavs had of making the NCAA tournament.

The DU-UNO hockey matchup may, over time, turn into a serious rivalry. With UNO’s new $80 million Baxter Arena and a serious commitment to hockey (and basketball), this has the potential to turn into more than just a conference match-up – and turn into a serious fan rivalry. Still, it’s hard for Denver residents and a student body from Colorado, California, Minnesota, Georgia, and the Northeast US to relate to either a heated Omaha rivalry or the Summit League in general.

The DU men’s soccer team swept the Summit League with an undefeated record to advance to the NCAA’s – while a confident UNO men’s squad couldn’t even advance to the league semifinals. The DU women’s soccer team had an uncharacteristically poor year. They could not post a ‘W’ their first 13 games yet they still defeated UNO to end the Mavs’ season and finished ahead of Omaha in league standings.

The closest UNO came to a title against DU was in volleyball. DU won the conference regular season and UNO was third in the league standings. When the Summit League volleyball championships were held in Denver, the two teams met in the finals. In a thrilling final set, UNO held the lead but DU came storming back and took the match, title and automatic berth to the NCAA’s. Nebraska is a volleyball hotbed so this could turn into a fan rivalry over time.

This year in men’s basketball, Omaha and DU split their series during the regular season but DU eliminated them 78-70 in the  Summit League quarterfinals. Both programs had poor women’s basketball seasons with Omaha in 6th and DU in 8th. UNO is a relatively new DI basketball program and DU has a new head coach but both programs have the potential to make noise in the Summit League over time.

In swimming and diving, DU was heads and shoulders above UNO and the rest of the Summit League. DU was named the Best Mid-Major program in the country and ran away with the Summit League crown in Indianapolis  while UNO finished 5th. In many respects, DU is a regional power in swimming and diving. The Summit League Championship meet is almost secondary to a number of other more compelling or significant swimming and diving events to the Pioneers.

When it comes to rackets and clubs, DU is the undisputed class of the Summit League. DU women’s golf team took the league title with a whopping 52 stroke advantage. The Summit League men’s golf championships take place this week but expect a dominant showing by the Pioneers. In men’s and women’s tennis, the teams traveled to Omaha for the league championships this season and breezed to the league finals where both the men’s and women’s teams never lost a match and advanced to the NCAA’s.

That’s hardly a rivalry – at least this year.

Of course, UNO does not compete in DU’s other higher visibility sports such as lacrosse, gymnastics, and skiing.

Hockey, basketball, volleyball and soccer (men’s & women’s) hold the greatest promise of a developing into a significant rivalry with the Mavericks. But that can only happen when and if UNO can consistently up their game and prove to be a more consistent threat to the Pioneers.

9 thoughts on “Summit League Lacks Rivalries”

  1. The lacrosse rivalries will only get better. We will stay good as will Duke and ND. UNC plays us most years. In the Big East, we are the big boy who everyone wants to take down. That won’t change dramatically soon, but Nova and Marquette seem like strong programs. Gtown will get better.
    The Summit League. The other schools have ZERO national name recognition. Doubtful anyone else in the League has ever won a Division 1 national championship. ( dog sledding and rifle don’t count) UNO can become a nice regional rivalry, but if we got in a League with Creighton (also in Omaha) UNO would be a distant memory except for ice hockey.

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  2. A big part of any rivalry is based on secret fan envy of the other program that manifests itself as outward hatred. And right now, it’s hard to get excited about a potential rivalry with UNO, as much as their fan base might want to be rivals with us.

    UNO is newbie at the full D-I level, a larger public (and primarily commuter) school that is an 8 hour drive away from DU. So there is little history between us, and there is virtually no overlap in admissions, either, and no geographic nor much cross-attendance between fan bases on each other’s campus, so even if the teams between schools are evenly matched (and you argue well that they aren’t there yet), the overall conditions for fan rivalry just are not there yet.

    We don’t yet have real fan passion for hoops on our campus yet, which also keeps a damper on rivalry-building. The Summit schools are all far away and pretty different from DU. I would say Wyoming, CU and CSU are all geographic rivals with some history, but I think we’re seen as an annoyance by those schools more than a rival. Those schools are bigger and have far better hoops fan bases.

    CC is a natural hockey rival for us – a small, private, 60 miles away and 65+ years of hockey history. Our major fans have been there and their serious fans have been here, usually every year. UND is also a great hockey rival due to the high stakes of the games involved, the 65 years of history and the massive numbers of UND fans who live in Colorado.

    DU’s best lax rival is clearly Notre Dame, dating back to the GWLL days as part of the same league, and ND’s willingness to play us every year and the razor-close nature of the recent results. Besides, those who don’t love Notre Dame tend to hate them as a national power brand in college sports so rivalry with them is easy. Duke is also a great rival due to Tierney and Donowski being old L.I buddies and scheduling us each year, even if rarely in Denver. I can see Villanova and Marquette also soon rising into rival territory now that we are three years into the Big East conference mate status.

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  3. I don’t see DU ever having strong rivalries with any of the Summit League colleges. DU basically has nothing in common with them. Big state schools in honestly irrelevant locations. What DU fan wants to travel to any of these schools to see a game or two? DU belongs in a conference with other private schools (like Big East lacrosse) and maybe a few public schools mixed in. The Summit League will never be appealing to DU students. Do kids from Canada or the Northeast care about South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska…these are places you fly over but never stop at.

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    1. You make a good point, If DU were ever invited into the WCC (they’ve been turned down many times over the years) I am sure they would go, although I wonder sometimes if DU fans would care any more about playing Loyola-Marymount, Santa Clara, Pacific and Pepperdine any more than they would if we played South Dakota State or Western Illinois. DU fans like to see us play regional rivals (without football, we likely won’t get into a regional conference) or bigger named schools, as we play in lacrosse. Unfortunately, I don’t see a better conference wanting us anytime soon in hoops.

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      1. I think it would definitely help basketball, soccer, and volleyball. Beach volleyball would instantly be one of the best attended student events at DU.

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  4. Beach volleyball yes. DU fans who follow college sports will warm up yo the WCC. Immediately. We play many WCC schools in various sports, and are currently in a women’s lax league with St. Mary’s

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  5. I think it’s been hard to develop rivalries with schools coming and going over the past 5 years as the conference has been developing. It seems like Omaha, South Dakota, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State all have some rivalries going on along I-29; then IPFW & IUPUI have a rivalry going; and then Denver and Oral Roberts don’t seem to have any conference rivals but their own in-state non-conference rivals. Western Illinois is just kind of by themselves not really sure what is going on.

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  6. In a strong league, rivalries or a least killer games develop overnight. Look at the Big East hoops. As an example, Butler and Villanova had no history. But once Butler joined the BE, it became an immediate war. The same is true for other teams in power conferences.

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