When Denver centerback Kortne Ford (above/Photo by David Grooms) carved open the Clemson backline to convert Alex Underwood’s cross to score the game-winning goal in Dec.2’s NCAA Soccer Quarterfinal with a minute left in the game to book a first-ever DU berth in the College Cup, it set off a big celebration for every Pioneer fan.
I would argue that it may have been one of DU’s greatest collegiate sporting achievements of all time. Here’s why:
Certainly, DU’s great sports achivements probably start for most of you with DU’s NCAA titles. DU has won 31 NCAA titles – 23 in skiing, 7 in ice hockey and one in men’s lacrosse. All of those are pinnacle achievements in their respective sports, so they must be better than getting to the final four in another sport, right?
Let’s start with skiing – DU’s most dominant sport since the 1950s. The 23 titles DU has won were all achieved competing against only the 23 schools (or less) who sponsor skiing. It’s only a handful of schools, most of them mountain-proximal. Great achievements, yes – but in a tiny, sub-regional sport with very little competition. In fact, all the participating schools get to ski for the NCAA title, with the only advantage in winning meets/NCAA regionals is that better teams can qualify more skiiers to compete. Big fish, very small pond.
Hockey? Yes, DU’s seven NCAA titles are great. It’s our flagship sport, but even though they seem very big to us, the sport is only contested by 59 other schools at the D-I level, almost all of them in the East or upper Midwest, some of them big power schools, others small hockey schools. Again, we’re a relatively big fish in a very small pond. Most D-I schools don’t play hockey, as it’s a regional sport with only a 16-team tournament. In fact, I might argue that DU’s three greatest hockey achievements were achieved in a single week in February of 1960, when DU, the eventual NCAA champs, beat and tied the eventual gold medal U.S. Olympic Team and then tied the silver medalist Russian Olympic team right before the Squaw Valley Olympics. Certainly, DU could make a case for being the best amateur team in the world in that one week.
Lacrosse? Yes, DU winnng the NCAAs in 2015 against big schools like Notre Dame and Maryland was a very big deal in our neck of the woods. But Men’s Lacrosse is perhaps the quintessential regional sport, played by only 69 mostly elite schools almost exclusively in the Boston-to-North Carolina corridor, with a few notable exceptions. We are all lucky to have the greatest coach in the history of the sport at DU, and I love watching these guys play. But once again, we’re a big deal in a small, very regional sport.
So that brings me to DU men’s soccer. At the NCAA D-I level, it’s played by 206 schools. That is more than double that of hockey or lacrosse, and almost 10 times more schools than skiing. It’s actually more schools than compete in D-I hockey, lacrosse and skiing put together. It’s also a true national sport, with many big schools that are located coast-to-coast. It’s a 48-team tournament, and DU has just made the final four for the first time, which may be a tougher achievement than winning any sport with less than 70 participating schools in 16-team tournaments.
Other DU sporting achievements to consider include the 2009 DU women’s golf team, which finished 5th in a sport with 334 schools playing. Mathematically, it may be the greatest DU finish ever, but golf is a game played against yourself, rather than having some other opponent trying to stop you from scoring, so I think of it less as a team sport achievement, at least to me.
The DU women’s soccer team making the Sweet 16 of the 2012 NCAA women’s soccer tournament (out of 64 teams in the tournament and 334 schools playing the sport) is also a big deal. But to me, men’s soccer making the 2016 final four out of a 48-team tournament teams is a bigger achievement.
DU teams have also been to NCAA tournaments in women’s lacrosse, gymnastics, and volleyball, and well as mens and women’s tennis, men’s golf and men’s/women’s swimming. But no DU team has approached final four status in any of those sports.
The basketball teams at DU have had their great achievements, too. The 2001 women’s team at DU made the NCAA tournament first round, out of a whopping 335 playing schools and a 64-team tournament, but lost to Virginia Tech. And the DU men’s hoop team in 2012 won an NIT game gainst Ohio University, their first ever D-I post-season win out of the four total NIT games DU’s played in its program history. But to me, those aren’t quite in the same league with the others. If the DU men’s hoops team ever goes to the big dance some day, it may be in the conversation for best-ever DU sports achievement, given how big and competitive D-I basketball is as a sport.
DU football also won some conference titles and went to three bowl games back in the day (Sun, Alamo and Pineapple) in the 1940s and 50s, but the Pios lost all three, so they don’t quite count highly for me.
Right now, for me, DU men’s soccer in 2016 ranks right up there as one of the highest DU sports achievements of all time, given how hard it is to win your way to the final four of a truly national sport. And should DU actually win a game or two in Houston next weekend, it might vault right up to number one.
What do you think?
Where would you rank this DU soccer win on your all-time list and why?
Please comment below.
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long time DU fan and alumnus. He contributes his views periodically here at LetsGoDU.