Colorado Emerges as Contender in MPSF
by Laurel Pfahler | Twitter
The Stanford and Denver women’s lacrosse teams have controlled the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation for the better part of the last decade.
Last year, a new player emerged as USC finished as the runner-up to the Cardinal and made a run to the second round of the NCAA tournament in just its third season.
Could another third-year program now be on the rise?
Colorado coach Ann Elliott would like to think so. The Buffs’ 11-10 season-opening win over Denver on Saturday is at least a sign not to forget them.
“Every conference game is a big game, and in order to achieve our goals, we have to compete in our conference,” Elliott said. “We’ve started the season off the last few years down at Denver with them as our first game, and I’m just excited about the way our kids came out and played hard. I think we were able to see some of the potential we have, but also a lot of areas we need to work on and improve on as we continue the season. We’re excited overall, but we know we have a lot of work to do.”
The Buffs stunned Denver with four goals in the first 5:15 of the game, including the first three in a 29-second span, and never trailed in their first-ever win over the Pioneers in three tries.
Darby Kiernan, the team's leading scorer last year, and Cali Castagnola each recorded three goals and one assist, with the latter completing the earliest hat trick in school history during the Buffs’ 4-0 start to the game. Marie Moore dished out three assists, and Sarah Brown had three caused turnovers, three draw controls and two ground balls.
“For us and our team, we talk about playing and competing for 60 minutes,” Elliott said. “I think that’s where we struggled last year in games against top teams in our conference and top teams outside of our conference. For 60 minutes down there, we played really hard. I think our kids did a good job in individual battles, one-on-one dodging, ground balls, draw controls and doing that for 60 minutes helped us end up on the winning side that day.”
Castagnola said the win against Denver hopefully helps add to the program’s credibility, but the Buffs weren’t surprised to come out on top.
“It’s been a long, hard four weeks of preseason,” Castagnola said. “We’ve been working so hard, and we’re really building depth into our team. I think we surprised people our freshman year (in 2014), and ever since then we’ve been getting better, and I think people are looking at us like we can do things and go far. We’re a little older now, and we know this could be a big year for us.”
Colorado's 34-member roster features players from 13 states. Sophomore midfielder Sarah Brown is one of eight Colorado high school products on the Buffs roster. (University of Colorado athletics)
Colorado started in 2014 with a roster full of freshmen and one sophomore, defender/midfielder Sarah Lautman. Now, the core of the team are juniors, and Lautman remains the only senior on a squad that returned its entire lineup from last year, including MPSF first-team attacker Johnna Fusco (44 goals, 8 assists in 2015) and goalkeeper Paige Soenksen.
Though Colorado hasn’t been competing for conference championships the past two seasons, the Buffs have finished among the top four in the MPSF and won 11 games both years. They finished 11-7 (5-4 MPSF) last season and again were picked fourth this preseason.
“We’ve always built it on we’re going to step on the field with the mindset we are going to compete, no matter what,” Elliott said. “We’re going to work hard for 60 minutes, and we’re never going to give up. That mentality has always been there, but I think now that we’re a little older, we can execute a little better and we have more depth, that mentality is hopefully what is going to help us be successful this year.”
Colorado came within two goals of Stanford last year before falling 16-5 in the rematch in the MPSF tournament semifinals. The Buffs lost to USC by three.
Earning the program’s first win over Denver is another step in the right direction, but as Elliott pointed out, it’s just the first of many necessary to reach the team’s goals of a conference championship and NCAA berth.
The MPSF continues to improve as a whole, and it could be anyone’s game, she said.
“We’ve played one game,” Elliott said. “I think this season we have a lot to prove. We have a lot of conference games ahead of us, a lot of tough games ahead. We have to do a lot. We don’t want to be a team that plays one game and settles.”
Elliott also said the Buffs can’t compare themselves to USC and expect to accomplish what the Trojans did in Year 3. Though their 14-6 finish was impressive and certainly something to strive to mimic, Colorado has its own set of challenges ahead to focus on.
The Buffs play Sunday at Fresno State before heading to Notre Dame on Feb. 26. A tilt against Northwestern also is on the slate March 24.
“We’re not going to be successful because USC was successful,” she said. “They worked hard to get where they were last year, and we need to work hard as a program to create our own path and see what we can in our third year with our new freshmen and all the returners coming back with a little more sense of confidence and maturity on the field. Who knows what’s in store for us?”
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