5 Things to Watch for as DU Women’s Lacrosse Returns to the Field
On Feb. 9, the University of Denver women’s lacrosse team will strut onto the newly improved Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium for the 2024 season opener against Louisville. Last season, the Pioneers made program history by going undefeated (17-0) in the regular season and finishing 22-1 overall after falling to Northwestern in the national semifinals.
With the majority of last year’s team returning, expectations are high. The DU Newsroom spoke with head coach Liza Kelly, attacker Julia Gilbert and defenders Sam Thacker and Trinity McPherson about what to watch for as the reigning Big East champions vie for a national championship title.
More powerful offense
Gilbert, who led DU in scoring during the 2023 campaign, is returning for a fifth and final year. Last season, she recorded a career high in goals (59) and points (67) and a second consecutive season of scoring 60 or more points. She scored in all 23 games for the Pioneers and led the team with eight game-winning goals. While her individual stats are impressive, Gilbert doesn’t ruminate on the individual accolades; instead, she focuses on the team.
“Denver is the perfect place for me. This team is really special. We have that unity – team over me,” Gilbert says.
In addition to Gilbert’s return, Kelly has added some star-powered transfers to boost the attack, including Olivia Penoyer from Yale. Last season, the attacker scored 16 goals and recorded 34 assists.
“We’re just going to be a more dynamic team, a shiftier attack,” Gilbert says. “We’re focused on pushing the ball faster and getting the goal quicker. For me, it’s been really cool to see our chemistry – moving the ball and connecting. It’s going to be a powerful offense.”
Hot Pink is back
“Hot Pink” is the name of the Pioneer women’s defense. Coined by coach Kelly years ago, the name has reverberated throughout college women’s lacrosse, representing the gritty nature of play that has been a formula for their success.
Last year, Denver’s defense held teams to 128 goals or 5.82 goals per game. Six of the seven girls who made up last season’s Hot Pink are returning this season, including Thacker, who was named the National Defender of the Year in 2023, and McPherson, who led the team in ground balls (61).
“Hot Pink really is back. Our entire defense. We’re all here. We’re all so bought in. Liza is Hot Pink. She’s the mastermind behind the defense,” McPherson says.
Thacker says the group’s added level of experience and supportive fan base will propel them to new heights.
“Because we're a unit-based defense, we are unafraid to make mistakes. We’re unafraid to try new things,” Thacker says. “It takes everyone in the unit to be successful. Everything we do, we do together.”
They’ll be even better than last year
How does a team that went undefeated in the regular season be better than last year? For Kelly and company, it’s about not being complacent—it’s about changing to become better and stronger.
“I think the full season is going to be on display. I think as a coach you worry about complacency every year. You worry your players aren’t going to have hunger or drive to get you back to where you want to be. I’m so happy they want to prove we’re not a one hit wonder,” Kelly says.
Fans contributing to the success
Last season was the first time in program history the team sold tickets to games. In turn, the fans did their part. Families, alumni and the greater DU community proved there’s a market for women’s lacrosse in Denver. They stand out in the crowd, often wearing hot pink hats, a tribute to Hot Pink.
“If you put value on something, it shows value,” Kelly says. “We wanted to have something in the stands so we can find our fans. One of the coolest things is to see little girls with these hats on.”
The synergy between the team and the fans is palpable.
“We bleed fun. How much we love each other comes through. You’re going to feel it. We love being Denver lacrosse,” McPherson says.
Exciting schedule for the die-hard fan
Denver fans will have 10 opportunities to see the women’s lacrosse team at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium, with matches against Louisville, Ohio State, San Diego State, Maryland, Stanford, UConn, Colorado, Marquette, Arizona State and Xavier.
You can check out the full schedule and more information on the Denver Pioneers website.