Head coach Jamie Franks had one pregame message for his Pioneers: “One year! You’ve been waiting one year for this!” Almost exactly one year ago, the University of Denver Pioneers lost their NCAA Tournament Second Round match to SMU on a heartbreaking goal in extra time. Franks made sure his players didn’t forget when he reminded them right before kickoff of this year’s second round match against the UNLV Rebels.
Tonight was different. The lights weren’t too big. The moment didn’t get the best of the Pios. Tonight, the Pioneers were the team to beat and, for the first time since 1970, the Pioneers will advance past their first NCAA Tournament match thanks to a dominant 3-0 effort over the Rebels.
“We were on the wrong side of the game last year,” Franks said after the game. “12 months later, the team’s now 21 games unbeaten, so we feel great about things.”
While the two teams played to a scoreless draw over the course of the first 45 minutes, Denver flipped a switch during the break and took control of the game. For the game, Denver outshot UNLV 18-5, and Denver notched 9 of those in the second half alone.
Franks and his team wouldn’t let anything deny them the opportunity to keep playing soccer this fall. Not even a missed PK in the first half by Karsten Hanlin would get the best of the Pios.
“We missed a penalty shot to start the game and most teams would crumble,” Franks said. “As the game went on, it was one of those games where it didn’t matter how it got in, we just needed to keep pushing and keep executing the gameplan and we got a great goal to kick things off.”
It wasn’t until the 55th minute of the match that Denver got on the board, but it was an important marker. Karsten Hanlin started the play with an excellent service from the corner and, as luck would have it, the ball found defender Scott DeVoss’ head high above everyone else in the box and it sailed past a diving UNLV goalkeeper to get the Pios on the board.
“First of all, my job is to defend,” DeVoss said. “Once I got up there and I saw the ball was coming, there was nothing getting in the way of me getting that. It felt great to see it go in.”
Denver wasn’t satisfied with just DeVoss’ goal. This team is all too familiar with the heartbreak of not doing enough to win when it counted, so they kept pressing and they kept attacking. In short, they weren’t going to let UNLV leave Denver with a victory.
in the 69th minute, Alex Underwood capped a long possession with a 25-yard ground-burning strike to double the Pioneers’ lead and all but end UNLV’s season. The way DU was playing all over the field, one goal would have been enough, but two goals was Mount Everest for the Rebels.
“This team is built for knock-out style competition,” Franks said. “We felt that we were prepared last year but we got a little bit unlucky, but for me, I would always take my guys in knock-out soccer.”
Sure, this year’s DU Men’s Soccer team is a historic one. The 2016 Pioneers were the first team in nearly 40 years to go unbeaten in two straight regular seasons on top of becoming the first DU team to advance in the NCAA Tournament in nearly 50. Those statistics are mind-boggling and it’d be easy for a team to sit back and feel accomplished about it.
DU isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the season yet, though. They’ve come so far. They’ve defied the odds by refusing to lose in the regular season…again. They’ve made program history. Why watch this end now?
“I really do feel that I have a team that can win this tournament,” Franks stated. “Not many people believe that when I say it, but nobody’s ever believed us. I’ve got a group of young men and a support staff that we know we can win this thing.”
One year removed from heartbreak, the Pios are back and building momentum toward the ultimate goal. This team isn’t done just yet.
Denver will play 11th-seeded Washington next weekend at CIBER Field. The official start time has not been announced, but be sure to follow LetsGoDU on Twitter. We will update that information as it becomes available.