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.
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?