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Same top-notch defense with a new-look offense for the DU women’s lacrosse team

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Matt Meyer



Feature  •
DU women's lacrosse team celebrating around the Big East tournament trophy

Suffocating defense, gritty ground-ball play and a holistic approach to sculpting student-athletes have been at the center of the University of Denver women’s lacrosse team, and that’s led to consistent, high-level success. The Pioneers won their third consecutive Big East regular season championship in 2022, hoisted the conference tournament title in back-to-back years for the first time in school history, and reached the sweet sixteen of the NCAA tournament for the fourth-straight year.

The defensive cornerstones are still present this season, at the heart of the team’s identity. But DU head coach Liza Kelly says a multi-year development on the offensive end of the field could further bolster performance. That’s thanks in part to associate head coach Brice Queener.

“We’ve been running the same defense for six or so years now, and it’s a deep-rooted part of our identity,” Kelly says. “But now that Brice has been here going on four years, he’s really left his mark on our offense. It’s really going to have this hard-driving, get-to-cage feel where we don’t mind taking a lot of shots and really getting after you. It stems from the same things we do on defense and that’s playing at a high pace.”

The roster features talent on both ends, with two players on each side of the field earning preseason All-American honors from USA Lacrosse Magazine. Senior defender Sam Thacker was picked for the first team and sophomore goalkeeper Emelia Bohl earned the third-team nod. Attackers Julia Gilbert, a senior, and Lauren Black, a sophomore, were honorable mentions.

That returning talent has led to a No. 10 preseason ranking from USA Lacrosse Magazine, a No. 9 ranking from the Inside Lacrosse/IWLCA, and high hopes for the squad.

Kelly joked that the team’s collective mentality will be revealed when they open the season at Louisville on Feb. 10 but added that, while expectations are baked into being a high-level student-athlete, her team is more focused on well-rounded growth. This is aided, even during a condensed preseason period, by the team’s leaders.

“We don’t really talk about rankings a lot,” Kelly says. “We focus on who we want to be at the end of the season. It’s been a short preseason for a lot of teams. Three weeks is not a lot of time to prepare. But our team has a strong mentality with really good senior and fifth-year leadership who have done a lot for us right now. We try to foster a culture in practice where you can make mistakes, go for things, fall on your face and learn from it. That starts from the seniors all the way down.”

Despite the consistent success, the Pioneers haven’t lost that grinding mentality. Last season, DU ranked 15th nationally in ground balls and clearing percentage. Thacker caused 64 turnovers across 21 games and her 3.05 per-game average ranked first in the nation by a .15 margin.

That defensive hunger starts in practice, Thacker says.

“We like to keep the chip-on-your-shoulder attitude and we play our best when we have that high level of preparation paired with an underdog mentality,” Thacker said. “From defense all the way to attack, gritty is how we like to play. Hustle, heart, if the ball is on the ground, it’s ours. We’re always competing in practice, and we’re not soft on each other. Treating every practice, every play, like a game really prepares us for the season.”

Although leading scorer Bea Behrens graduated following last season, Black and Gilbert will anchor the offense, returning with 54 and 47 goals, respectively. The offense might look a little different from a tactical standpoint, but the same practice environment that powers the defense also ignites the offense.

“(The offense) is centered around playing together and playing fast,” Black said. “It’s different from last year, which we’re all adjusting to, but we’ve gotten a bunch of new great players. It’s the same as other years in that we’re trying to get better every day, holding each other accountable to go 100% at practice so when game time comes, we can come out swinging.”

The Pioneers start the season with a four-game road-trip and will play in Boulder on Feb. 18. The home opener is scheduled March 1 as DU hosts Michigan. Tickets are available through DU Athletics.

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