It’s April 21st and the Denver Women’s Lacrosse program is ranked #3 in the country. They enter tomorrow’s Senior Day as the country’s only unbeaten team at 15-0 and have wins over national powerhouses Maryland and Boston College among their, count ’em, five Top-25 victories. For head coach Liza Kelly who just signed an extension that will keep her in Crimson & Gold through what will be her 22nd year as the DU head coach in 2028, this comes as no surprise. In fact, this was always part of the plan. To be the best, you have to beat the best, right?
“The goal is to win a national championship,” Kelly told me last weekend while she was on her way to the airport to finish off the back half of a grueling weekend that saw her team beat up on Stanford 18-6 in Denver before obliterating Xavier 23-6 in Cincinnati two days later. “That’s what our goal is every year. I think we have players that can do it.”
When you share an athletic department with the greatest college hockey program of all time and the greatest men’s lacrosse coach of all time, there is but one standard by which you’re judged: national success. In other words, championships. While this may be the first time you’ve noticed Kelly’s Pioneers this close to the top of the national rankings, this season most certainly isn’t a fluke. Her program has been building toward this for years and though it may seem to outsiders that her program is finally getting its moment in the spotlight, this is much more than a moment. This is the culmination of nearly two decades of hard work building this program into a national contender.
Before Kelly took the reins in 2007, Cathy Reese – the current Maryland head coach who won five national titles with the Terps – led the Pioneers from a middling 7-12 team to a 15-5 MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, DU’s conference affiliation before the 2017 move to the BIG EAST – the men joined in 2014) contender in her three years at the helm. It was a step in the right direction but Reese’s decision to head back east and coach her alma mater tasked then-Athletic Director and coach whisperer Peg Bradley-Doppes with the challenge of finding the right person to take the program to the next level. Enter Boston University head coach Kelly.
“Definitely not,” Kelly said with a laugh when I asked if she saw a two-decade career with the Pioneers coming 17 years ago. “One of the biggest reasons we came out here is because we wanted to raise our kids out here. When we got here, we didn’t have children. It’s been really cool to be able to do that and be a part of a really successful athletic department.”
Now, fast-forward to 2023. Kelly is 229-76 and counting over the course of her tenure as DU’s leader but her squad is still looking to get over the hump and into Championship Weekend for the first time and this unbeaten squad may very well be the team to get it done.
“We’ve had a number of years where we’ve had really just unbelievable seasons,” Kelly noted. “I think we’ve gone like 17-3 before, just had one or two losses, you know, within the regular season or going into the conference tournament. And so I don’t really pay a lot of attention to the undefeated piece of it.”
There is now one (1) undefeated team in NCAA Women’s Lacrosse.
— LetsGoDU (@LetsGoDU) April 21, 2023
While she doesn’t pay attention to the record herself, that 15-0 record has forced the rest of the country to take notice. Not only have the Pioneers gone 15-for-15 this year, but four of their five ranked victories have also come away from the friendly confines of Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium.
Those victories over #5 Maryland and #4 Boston College? The 8-7 win over the Terps happened in Reese’s own backyard in College Park while the 13-8 win against BC in Jacksonville preceded their 12-7 victory over #21 Jacksonville University just three days later
“We’ve just had a grueling travel schedule this year,” Kelly added. “I’m beyond proud of how the kids handled that. The Maryland game was amazing. I think being able to go back east – we’ve got so many Baltimore, Maryland kids on the team, that it was really fun to be able to do it in front of our fans and parents.”
The Pios have won their way into the top five thanks to a well-known reliance on its zone defense which is not commonly used at the collegiate level. While Kelly’s zone defense is difficult for players to master, when it’s executed well as it almost always is by the Pioneers, it frustrates and stifles even the best offenses. The scheme’s effectiveness lies in its ability to force turnovers on plays that the opposing offense thinks are wide open. As a result, Denver’s defense ranks #1 in the country, allowing just 6.07 goals per game and they’ve forced 191 turnovers in their 15 games (12.73 per game), which is 2nd nationally, behind only the A-SUN’s Campbell University.
In fact, Kelly’s defense has been her calling card since arriving at Denver. Nine of DU’s 10 best defensive seasons in terms of goals allowed per game have come during her tenure. The only season among the top ten that wasn’t hers was Reese’s last season in 2006 when the Pioneers allowed 8.78 goals per game, good enough for just 7th-best. Should the Pioneers keep up their stingy defense this year, their 6.07 GAA would rank #1 in DU history by an astounding 1.14.
But while their defense and goaltending (Emilia Bohi has once again been a brick wall in the crease with a .488 SV%, good for #15 nationally) have been above reproach as everyone expected, there were many a question asked before the season started about whether the Pioneers would score enough to make the staunch defense count. And from that perspective, the season didn’t exactly get off to the best start with a low-scoring 5-4 season-opening road victory over Louisville that saw the Pioneers successfully defend a last-second free-position attempt to seal the victory.
“We didn’t have a doubt because of the way we’d been practicing it,” Kelly said of the preseason questions surrounding her teams’ offensive potential. “I think the Louisville game was kind of more of a shock to us as coaches because the girls had been performing so well…I honestly think we were ill-prepared for how close it was. Louisville is a tough place to go. Your locker room is off-site, we didn’t get our on-field warmup that we’re used to, so there were just a lot of different factors.”
After that Louisville game, though? Denver has scored double-digit goals in 11 of their 14 games since, including 13 against BC, the current nine-game streak of scoring at least 10, and the 23 they dropped on Xavier last Sunday.
“We’ve got some newer kids out there and I think that once they figured out they could do it, they really have been rolling,” Kelly added. “What I’m really proud of is how many different scorers we have per game. [Associate head coach] Brice Queener does a really amazing job of subbing and giving kids opportunities and then you’re really able to go with who’s hot on that given day.”
The only thing missing for these undefeated Pioneers is a regularly sold-out Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. Whether it’s a product of the schedule that sees the Pioneers play most of their home games in the afternoon in the middle of the week or a lack of marketing, the Pioneers aren’t yet seeing the kind of in-person support you’d expect for a national title contender.
Kelly insists that the biggest issue preventing her team from selling out Peter Barton isn’t the schedule, even though four of their seven 2023 home games have been scheduled for either late morning or mid-afternoon on weekdays. Denver’s 7-5 victory over then-#21 Michigan took place in front of just 364 fans at 4 pm on a Wednesday.
“I do think that we are at the mercy of getting teams to come out here when they can play us,” Kelly said. “So you have that weird Delaware game at 11am on a Monday (a 13-6 Denver victory). We only had seven home games so I’ve got to play them when they can play us.”
So if attendance isn’t a scheduling problem, what is it? For Kelly, it goes a lot deeper than that. During the vast majority of her tenure with the Pioneers, women’s lacrosse games weren’t ticketed events.
“I’m literally pushing for 16 years for us to be a ticketed event,” Kelly explained. “The amount of pushback I’ve had on that is really frustrating. We were the only outdoor event on campus that wasn’t ticketed and that’s pretty condescending in my mind. If DU isn’t willing to put a price on it, why should anybody else?”
Fortunately, this season, in athletic director Josh Berlo’s first year as the leader of the department, that changed.
Added Kelly, “I’m so appreciative of Josh Berlo for really understanding the worth of the program and being able to say ‘No, we need to ticket them just like we ticket men’s and women’s soccer, just like we’ve ticketed men’s lacrosse.”
What the Pioneers have seen for games on days and at times more conducive to better attendance is a considerable jump in attention and attendance. Take last Friday night’s Stanford game for example. Sure, there’s name recognition associated with the Cardinal but even despite the terrible, cold weather and intermittent snow, nearly 1,100 fans came to PBLS to see the nation’s #3 team dominate the visitors from Palo Alto. With better, more seasonal weather? They might have seen a sellout.
But even with the progress being made this season, DU’s head coach sees room for improvement, specifically related to marketing her sport, her team, and her players.
“I think across the board, people want to get behind women,” she said. “The tough part is that we aren’t men’s lacrosse. I wish we had a different name sometimes. It’s a different sport and it’s fun because it’s different. We don’t necessarily need to market to men’s lacrosse fans; we can go market to women’s lacrosse fans.”
The distinction she makes is an important one – men’s and women’s lacrosse are not like men’s and women’s hockey or even men’s baseball vs women’s softball. Men’s lacrosse and women’s lacrosse are completely different sports and it certainly makes sense that marketing exclusively to the same fans that pack Peter Barton for the men’s games would be an exercise in futility.
But what, exactly, does that kind of marketing look like? To Kelly, it all starts with social media.
“I think we are in a social media world,” she explained. “We have to put our athletes out there more. They have to become these approachable people that little kids look up to and they’re like ‘Oh my goodness! I saw Sam on this video and I want to go watch her play tonight!'”
But without access to a staff that can prioritize that kind of marketing, it’s going to remain difficult to achieve what Kelly envisions.
“So yes, I think the social media part needs to have a bigger presence and that’s really even in recruiting for us. I get we’re not a Clemson,” Kelly conceded. “But they have a whole social media department, right? We can have at least one person?”
That’s where Kelly hopes to go with her program over the long term and how she plans to build her DU women’s lacrosse team into an annual force to be reckoned with not only in the West but across the country. But for now, her program is focusing on what can be controlled and that is continuing their unbeaten march to May that hopefully ends with a trip to Cary, North Carolina for Championship Weekend. And with just two games left in the regular season – tomorrow vs. Georgetown (12:30 pm on CBS Sports Network if you can’t make it to PBLS) and next Saturday at Marquette – Kelly and her Pioneers are gearing up for what they hope is a memorable couple of months.
It’s both an understatement and right on point to say that Liza Kelly has earned her multi-year extension. What she’s done with her program goes so far beyond what her team has already accomplished this season. But at the same time, how else do you reward someone with Kelly’s accolades with anything other than the vote of confidence a lengthy contract extension represents?
When her current (and hopefully not last) extension expires in 2028, Kelly will have been with the Pioneers for an incredible 22 years – a mark even legendary hockey head coach George Gwozdecky didn’t reach – and it will put her among the longest-tenured head coaches in the department.
“I think that Jeff Hooker (women’s soccer) and Melissa [Kutcher-Rinehart, Gymnastics] still have me in years,” Kelly emphasized. “I don’t want to trump them just yet!”
There is a reason why Denver is the last remaining unbeaten team this season and it has everything to do with what Liza Kelly has been building toward for nearly two decades. Now that they’ve arrived at this stage in 2023, Kelly plans to keep her program here.
This is the new standard for Denver Women’s Lacrosse.
Top photo of Liza Kelly coaching vs Villanova courtesy of Wayne Armstrong via DU Athletics