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‘Hot Pink’ Heart: Sam Thacker Thrives on the Defensive Identity of DU Women’s Lacrosse

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Matt Meyer



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Sam Thacker running with a lacrosse ball

Jack Dempsey/Clarkson Creative

Fresh off one of the final practices for the University of Denver women’s lacrosse team at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium this season, senior Sam Thacker had a hot pink mouthguard tucked under the strap of her practice jersey. The same fluorescent shade was on a scrunchie on her left wrist and painted on her nails.

Thacker headshot

As the Pioneers overcame an early 4-1 deficit to defeat defending national champion North Carolina last week—a game in which Thacker was a key piece of a defense that held the Tar Heels scoreless for 35 minutes—cameras panned to DU fans in the stands clad in highlighter- pink hats.

All of this in honor of a defense nicknamed “Hot Pink.”

Hot Pink is scrappy, aggressive and full of attitude. It takes no flak, and it owns the grittiest parts of lacrosse—ground balls, clears, turnovers and a suffocating zone scheme.

Thacker says DU coach Liza Kelly came up with the nickname years ago and, during the most successful season in program history, it’s become a rallying cry for a fierce mid-major team hoping to break through in a sport dominated by traditional powers east of the Mississippi River.

The Pioneers will look to continue that run when they face off against top-ranked Northwestern at 1 p.m. Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, at the NCAA Final Four. The Wildcats are not only the tournament’s top seed but also winners of seven national championships in the past two decades.

Still, the hope is they haven’t faced a defense quite like that of the Pioneers.

“I think just the fact that we have a name for our defense really shows how much we value an identity on defense,” Thacker says. “We don’t like to sit around and let people come to us or hope we get the ball back. We want to dictate what happens on defense and actually make a stand down there, and having a name for that gives us an identity. It also gets the crowd to rally around something, and that’s been fun.”

Lacrosse, like most sports, often draws focus to the offensive end, where flashy goals and highlight plays pull the eyes of fans. The Pioneers have had their fair share of offensive success, and Thacker says the same hustle identity is an intrinsic part of the offense, too.

Kelly stressed that while she classifies herself as “a defensive-minded coach,” the Hot Pink moniker is reflective of the entire team’s character and attitude.

“Hot Pink is a fun, aggressive, gritty style of [defense], and I think that’s what I want our team to be known for, in general,” she says. “Somebody that you don’t want to play against. When you see us coming on the docket, you think, ‘Ugh, it’s Denver. We know it’s going to be hard, and we know they’re going to give us everything they have.’”

The success has been consistent and spread across the entire defensive unit as the Pioneers remain undefeated with a 22-0 record. Gracie DeRose last week became the fifth DU player this season to earn the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association’s National Defensive Player of the Week award. She joined Thacker and fellow defenders Bryn McCaughey and Trinity McPherson, along with goalie Emelia Bohi.

All those players have been essential to making the defense what it is, but at the heart is Thacker, a four-year starter at DU. She was unanimously chosen as the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons and earned All-American honors after her junior season. On Thursday, she was once again selected as a first-team All-American, becoming the first player in program history to earn that honor. Alongside McPherson's second-team nod and draw specialist Abby Jenkins being picked for the third team, it's the first time the Pioneers have had three All-Americans in the same season.

Kelly credits Thacker for her leadership in a team environment that rewards players up and down the roster, not just the 12 on the field. The coach says it creates an environment that players want to be a part of, even with vast majority of the roster coming from the East Coast and spending the better portion of four years far from home.

Thacker calls her journey to this point “crazy to think about now.” She was first recruited early in her high school years and says her choice to come to DU was an easy one. She felt an instant connection to the University and program, as well as a love for the Daniels College of Business, where she’s working to earn a business degree. Small class sizes and connections with other students and professors have kept her at DU almost as much as her lacrosse team.
Still, for Thacker, it’s hard to beat the bonds built on the lacrosse field.

“It’s everything,” Thacker says with a laugh when asked why she has stayed at DU during the transfer portal era. “Liza and the coaching staff, they’re the best. I love this place, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. What we’ve done has been so huge, being able to come in and see how our team has grown in the last four years, it’s just a place I never want to leave. Our team’s a family, and I never want to leave that.”

The game begins Friday in Cary, North Carolina, at 1 p.m. MDT and will be broadcast on ESPNU and online with ESPN+. Live stats are available on the Athletics website.

Hot Pink hats are available at the parent’s tailgate party outside WakeMed Soccer Park before the game. Hats are $20 with proceeds going to the women’s lacrosse program. Those interested in purchasing hats can reach out to Director of Women's Lacrosse Operations Megan Zeman at

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