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.