Which Program has the Best Chance at Winning DU’s 34th National Title?

It was 2018 when Denver skiing won their 24th national NCAA title. Denver hockey secured their 8th title during the 2016-2017 season. In 2015, head coach Bill Tierney led Denver to its first men’s lacrosse NCAA championship. By recent DU standards, a three-year championship drought is too long and it begs the question of which team will win the athletic department’s next national title and when?

Let’s take a look.

Skiing is DU’s bread and butter sport with 24 national championships. At the conclusion of this past season, successful head coach Andy LeRoy left the Mile High City to move a bit north to coach his alma mater and DU rival, CU. DU is one of the country’s elite teams without a skiing coach, unlike their key competitors Utah and Colorado. Currently, DU has no permanent Alpine or Nordic head coaches, relatively meager campus facilities, and spotty results in recent Nordic events (due at least in part to Covid). Two interim coaches, Joonas Rasanen (Alpine) and Rogan Brown (Nordic) are currently guiding the program. Denver is likely to compete for individual titles but a team title over the short term seems uncertain at this point.

Which program has the best chance to win DU's next team national championship?

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A hockey title is almost always a possibility. Denver competes in the rugged National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) but North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth have built some distance between themselves and Denver over the last several years and other teams in the conference are showing improvement with new coaches, new facilities, and improved recruiting. Despite a down year where scoring was a problem, the Pioneers are set to reload – not rebuild – for the 2021-22 season and get things back on track. The Pios will be young but they will be talented. Don’t be surprised if they get themselves right back into the national title mix next season.

Lacrosse at the University of Denver is in an interesting place. Men’s lacrosse continues to be among the national powers but has struggled by their own standards in BIG EAST and NCAA Tournaments since winning it all in 2015. Women’s lacrosse head coach Liza Kelly seems to have her program on the upswing. However, there appears to be a big gap between the women’s elite teams and the ‘almost elite’ teams of which Denver is a member. As crazy as it seems, Denver women’s lacrosse may be closer to a title now than men’s lacrosse if current trends continue. Both teams, however, are facing tough graduation losses.

Soccer is an interesting possibility. This past season Santa Clara (women) and Marshall (men) won their respective soccer titles. When compared to these two schools, Denver should be able to recruit on a similar par. Still, this was a Covid-19 spring season and more traditional soccer powers seem to win these titles (Wake Forest, Stanford, North Carolina, Indiana). Again, Denver has strong men’s and women’s programs but there is a gap between the top 5-10 programs and the current level of DU soccer. As international recruiting continues to play a critical role in the sport of soccer, Denver needs to develop a consistent pipeline to recruit top-tier, international players. Whatever happened on the men’s side with the partnership with FC Bayern Munich and DU?  Also, with over 200 D1 soccer programs nationwide, earning a ring in the beautiful game will be difficult for DU but not impossible. It wasn’t that long ago that Jamie Franks guided the men’s team to the College Cup.

Volleyball, outside of basketball, is one of the most difficult and unlikely opportunities for the Pioneers to win an NCAA championship with 330 teams competing for the title. Volleyball has become a major revenue sport at a number of Power-5 schools and they get their pick of top talent. The University of Denver can emerge as a top 25 program but cracking the top 15-20 programs would require a huge investment, effort, and good fortune. Plus, there is a huge gap between the quality of play in the Power-5 conferences and mid-majors. Outside of public universities, Stanford and Southern Cal are some of the only private schools to win volleyball titles.

Women’s gymnastics, led by Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, is building an elite reputation. The team is knocking on the championship door by making it to the finals prior to last season and winning the Big 12 title this season against then #1 Oklahoma. Gymnastics is clearly on an upward trajectory. If DU can continue to recruit a core of top gymnasts with only 60 teams fielding women’s teams, DU Gymnastics could be in line to earn Denver’s 34th NCAA national championship – and the first women’s team at DU to do so.

Women’s triathlon, an emerging NCAA sport, provides some championship possibilities for the University of Denver. Colorado is a triathlon hotbed and few Power-5 schools have added triathlon. With only 8 D1 programs and growing, DU could establish an early reputation in the sport with so many triathlete recruits in the region. Arizona State has established an early dominance in the sport but the training conditions in Colorado are more ideal than Arizona if head coach Barbara Perkins can identify and land top recruits. Plus, the barriers to success are relatively low with minimal overall investment in teams and equipment relative to other sports.

It’s been a while by our own standards since a Denver team stood on the top podium. What do you think about Denver winning another national championship in the short term? If so, which team?

6 thoughts on “Which Program has the Best Chance at Winning DU’s 34th National Title?”

  1. Good article and a great question!

    Gymnastics for sure. Three seniors all coming back for a fifth year. Need to stay healthy, but if they perform to capabilities, they can be there on the final day. Lynzee Brown needs to be that star she was born to be…

    Honestly, I think DU hockey will likely be a bit too young with 15 freshmen and sophs (and perhaps a bit too small physically) next season to be a Frozen Four team, but perhaps a year later in 2022-2023, when next year’s young team becomes a bit more seasoned?

    For good things to come to DU hockey next year, Chrona will have to be at least his freshman-level self in goal for DU to have any shot at all. Stapely will need to stay healthy, and Bobby Brink will need to become the elite player we hoped he could become. At the same time, Savoie is the emerging talent to watch in year two. Look for big growth from Benning, as he has the tools to become an elite-level offensive defensemen. Lot’s of good young recruits coming into the lineup, and it will be interesting to see if any of them can be impact players in year one. That said, I think Carle has a pretty big job ahead of him to change some of the playing culture for DU to climb back into elite status. Last year’s losing record was a kick in the nuts to the program, the school and the fan base. I just want to see them be in the NCHC hunt next season, and qualifying for the NCAA tourney would be a successful season. Anything beyond that is gravy…

    The other sports are just too far away to be realistic NCAA trophy threats.

    Both DU Lax teams lose a TON of key experienced players going into next season, so my expectations would be just be league-level success and making to the dance would be success there. The men’s failure to advance last year with such a a loaded program is deeply concerning, and let’s hope the coaches can evolve the offense in the shot clock era. W Lax is an established top 20 program, but with big losses to graduation, it will be a fight to stay there.

    The ski team is a relative mess right now, with no real head coach and a poor Nordic program. But with only 20 teams competing and perhaps 5-7 teams who can ever field a full roster of qualified skiers at the NCAAs, it is possible to get back in the hunt. But some heavy lifting is needed…

    Men’s soccer is clearly declining, losing two Summit League games last year to Oral Roberts. They need to dominate the Summit before thinking about being a national factor and finding offense after Shinyashiki has been an adventure for them.

    Perhaps women’s soccer may be in a breakthrough position behind Natalie Beckman’s development? We’ll see, but they need more depth to punch from the top 25 into the top 15.

    Can’t expect more from Volleyball, as 330 teams competing is perhaps the hardest climb outside of hoops. Hogan does a great job with what he has, but he will need some amazing P-5 level athletes to get this program to a higher level, and those kids are choosing more elite programs.

    Triathlon may get there soon with only a few teams to compete, but they need some top triathletes to come to DU, rather that trying to build them out of athletes from other sports.

    1. It’s LYNNZEE. And henceforth should only be referred to as LYNNZEEEEEEEEEE! 10 E’s for a 10.0

  2. Dunker will stick with Hockey or Lacrosse to win our next NCAA championship.
    1. Gymnastics- Yes, next year we could easily be top 5. Depth is needed, really high quality depth, Some Power 5 program will probably edge us out. Not feeling a NC from this elite program.
    2. Skiing- Mess right now. I’d love to read Tim “Ski” Healy’s assessment of future. Hard to get a feel for the program like in years gone by. Kids are skiing all over Europe in season. What is their DU commitment and teammate love? Honestly, being a runner-up in lax and or hockey might be more satisfying.
    3. Lacrosse– Tierney built the team to win or come mighty close this weekend. We underachieved. However still #9-12 in final rankings I predict. We had lots of star quality players who didn’t get much time this year. Virtually no freshman played. We can recover quickly and make a run for a NC right away. Maryland and ACC teams will always be in the way. In a one game knock-out situation, we can beat anyone. We are still an elite lax program as long as Tierney coaches.
    4. Hockey- Hey, it was just 2017 when we last won. We are one of the last 3 teams to win a NC. The big bad Sioux of North Dakota last won in 2016. You need to win with young talent; otherwise the kids turn pro. We have a nice base off talent returning. Puck gave them mention. Let’s add Guttman to the list; this year’s team MVP.
    Puck focused spot on as our success possibility. Magnuss needs to at least play like his freshman year. Also, it would be nice if we fans get the feeling that Carle and staff coach us up.

    It’s very difficult to win a NC in any sport: men, women, or coed. We have been spoiled in this century.

  3. Huge deal that Lynzee Brown, and I believe two other seniors, are returning. Thought you guys would have done a story on it! (Hint hint.) I’m not sure if this makes us a favorite–sometimes unexpected returns like this don’t always pan out as well as you think, and the team didn’t make the top 4 last year. But I can’t think of a DU team that will have a better shot at a title next year….sorry men’s lacrosse, you were a big disappointment. Sorry hockey…all the transfers left me wondering if Carle is losing his grip on the program just a bit.

  4. Skiing, always the best chance. Even in relative disarray – only 3-to-4 other teams at most to beat.

    Hockey always has a chance. Over the years, we’ve won when not best team in country and not won it all when when arguably are best team in country heading into tourney. One and done hockey is always a chance for legit programs.

    Gymnastics – I don’t know enough, just what I read hear, but wow, that would be awesome.

    rest, not likely in foreseeable future (even men’s lax, after the initial few years, just not getting the same depth of quality )

    Why wasn’t men’s basketball a choice in the poll, with the amount of coverage they get here, I assumed they were a lock 🙂

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