HOUSTON – It’s not even 48 hours after the Denver Pioneers’ undefeated soccer season ended on a double-overtime goal by Wake Forest’s Ian Harkes in NCAA semifinal in the College Cup at BBVA Compass Stadium.
The Pioneers fell straight down to the field on the spots where they had just arrived after chasing the Deacons’ 2-on-1 game-winner, as Harkes’ goal nestled into the corner of the Pioneer net. Yes, they were drained of physical energy after over 100 minutes of soccer, but also suddenly relieved of the mental stress and relentless focus of pushing through an a second consecutive undefeated season and taking their teammates, coaches, families, university and fans to a place it had never been before in this sport.
And while I grieve for the dreams of the players and coaches, whose season of triumph and toil ended just short in the Houston night, we have the luxury of seeing what they accomplished in a longer and larger context.
First, let us salute the four seniors on the team, all of whom were big contributors:
We will miss Evergreen’s Sam Hamilton for his captaincy, his team leadership and ball-winning skills.
We will miss the little Texan, Chandler Crosswait, for his ability to dart into spaces and make plays.
We will miss Centennial native Karsten Hanlin for his consistency and precision service on set pieces and corner kicks.
And perhaps most of all, we will miss the most decorated and accomplished senior soccer player in DU History, First Team All-American, Reagan Dunk, for his shutdown defense and pacey offensive runs down the right flank. At least we’ll see him in the pros next year…
Speaking of the pros, it’s increasingly likely that DU junior centerback Kortne Ford will also be offered a Major League Soccer contract and if that happens, he will almost certainly give up his senior year at DU to turn professional.
It was fitting that DU’s first NCAA College Cup appearance was in Houston – a city known as a as the hub of the U.S. Space Program – a place that showed the world just what Americans are capable of doing when they apply the right combination of ambition and resources to achieve greatness. Houston may not have the financial power of New York, the technology of San Francisco, or the intellectual pedigree of Boston. But it does have a relentless drive to harness the brainpower of its diverse community to achieve amazing things, such as putting a man on the Moon. It reminds me of a university I know in Denver, Colorado, where ambition and resources are redefining DU from a school once known as vacation spot for the East Coast collegiate rich to a dynamic university that now punches well above its weight, especially in sports.
This DU transformation is well-personified by the relentless, curious mind of Jamie Franks, DU’s 30-year old head coach, who took a good soccer program and made a great one through culture change. Building on the solid foundational work of former DU coach Bobby Muuss, Franks instilled his own culture changes, in part by applying some new leadership skills he learned while getting his masters in that subject in a program at DU’s University College. When he talks, you hear about subjects like “Human Capital” – which may sound corporate to some, but on the field, it’s resulted in getting the very most from his players. It’s a close-knit soccer family with an extremely high work rate that came within an eyelash of playing for a national title. DU soccer’s newfound success is a fitting metaphor for our overall sports program, as it pushes relentlessly into new sports and new levels of excellence, as DU Director of Athletics Peg Bradley-Doppes understands the power of human capital, too.
To have four DU programs in the top five of their respective sports nationally (Men’s Hockey, Soccer, Lacrosse and Skiing) is an incredible, astounding achievement – given our sports budget, location and sports history. And many other DU sports are also rising into the top national echelons of their own respective sports. Our swim teams are both rising into NCAA top 25 at this very moment and may be the next DU team to arrive as a powerhouse. The DU women’s Volleyball, Gymnastics, Lacrosse and Soccer teams are already NCAA tournament caliber programs and all have been conference champions in recent years. Our Tennis and Golf teams often make it to their respective NCAA tournaments, too. And our basketball teams, who have the tallest NCAA mountains to climb, are showing renewed fight and vigor, with the men’s team showing road win ability in the young season and the women’s team now undefeated at home.
As a DU fan, it was a treat to be in Texas to support our guys. We had about 200 fans in Houston, first at a nice pre-game BBQ party DU hosted at a nearby restaurant to BBVA Stadium and then at the stadium itself, a very respectable turnout. They ranged from DU soccer parents and families, and former DU soccer players who filled our lower rows with enthusiasm, to DU sports alumni like former DU hockey captain Dave Shields, as well as the usual cadre of DU administrative brass. Even Denver Boone flew in from Denver to generate smiles, selfies and school pride by way of College Station, Texas where he supported the DU men’s basketball team at Texas A&M earlier in the week. Also in BBVA Stadium was his larger brother, the 25-foot long “Mega-Boone” banner that often finds its way to higher profile DU sports events on campus and around the country, helping us often outcheer the slightly larger fan group from Wake Forest.
We were seen.
We were heard.
And we generated a lot of excitement and respect.
All in all, even though the overall Houston announced crowd of 6,000 was small, this event is still very much in the developmental phase of its evolution, much like college hockey was in the mid-1980s when DU went to the Frozen Four in Providence, R.I. to play front of only 5,000 people.
College soccer is still growing, and DU has a real chance to be among the soccer attendance leaders next year nationally if we can galvanize our campus around our new powerhouse program and help get it more monetized as a revenue-generating sport. If DU can import the lacrosse-style tailgates to engage the students, add DU spirit squads like cheer, band and dance teams to the games, and promote our soccer home games in the month of September before hockey begins (but with the students on campus), we could be starting another new DU fan culture that could help generate serious crowds for every month of the school year, instead of just during hockey and lacrosse seasons.
Let’s do it!
Puck Swami is the Internet moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views here at LetsGoDU periodically.