Liza Kelly instructs the defense during a timeout against Maryland on March 5.

'D' is for Denver: 'Keep Underestimating It. You'll Struggle to Beat It.'

Defense isn’t passive at Denver. There’s no such thing as going through the motions until the opponent makes its move.

That offense won’t do anything that Denver doesn’t want it to do. For 90 seconds at a clip — and sometimes longer — the Pioneers dictate the tempo. Head coach Liza Kelly puts it bluntly.

“My goal, no matter what defense we’re playing, is to go get the ball,” she said Tuesday. “I’m just not a fan of sitting back and letting the attack do whatever it wants.”

Denver sure dictated the pace in last week’s NCAA quarterfinal against defending national champion North Carolina. The Pios held the Tar Heels to just four goals — and none in the final 35 minutes. It was a zone defense masterclass, a feat made even more impressive by the discipline displayed in a close game.

Playing Kelly’s style of a zone defense requires calculated risk taking. It also requires complete faith in the offense to do just enough to win the game. It did against UNC, as Kayla DeRose scored the winner with 6:31 remaining. Sam Thacker then sealed the win with 1:42 left by causing a turnover, controlling the ground ball and successfully clearing.

“There are certain players that you are just trying to contain,” Kelly said. “Do not create for a team. Don’t go so out of control that you’re creating for the other team. You have to take calculated risks.

“The backside recovery is probably the hardest piece. You have to get out on the ball and then sprint back to get back into the next zone.”

“The whole thing will fall apart if we’re not in it together.”

— Trinity McPherson

Zone defense requires faith in the people around you. There’s also very little finger pointing. If the other team scores, it’s rarely because one person got beat. It’s because the entire unit failed to respond appropriately to a dodge, cut or feed. Breakdowns in communication simply can’t happen.

Those hiccups have been few and far between for Denver in 2023. The first-time semifinalists have allowed just 5.83 goals per game and have yet to give up more than nine goals in a game (UConn, April 8). The Pioneers are the only undefeated team left in Division I at 22-0.

“If you’re not doing your job, nobody is,” Johns Hopkins transfer Trinity McPherson said. “The whole thing will fall apart if we’re not in it together.”

That reliance on each other is so critical that Denver actually spends an atypical time scouting individual threats. Instead, Kelly and her staff focus on what their opponents will try to do in certain areas of the offensive end.

And that’s not a slight to any of the stars the Pios have faced this spring. They’d just rather look inward than outward. In Denver’s zone, you can only be as good as your weakest link.

“We’ll watch the film, get a good sense of them, but at the end of the day, it’s not what Northwestern is doing,” McPherson said. “It’s about the shot we want to let up. How are we going to force them to play against us?”

YES, DENVER HAS HEARD EVERYONE’S OPINIONS ON ZONE DEFENSES. Maybe the Pios just have haters. Maybe it’s jealousy. Maybe it’s a lack of understanding.

None of it bothers Denver. Zone detractors believe the scheme is meant to hide inferior athletes or goalkeepers on the roster. McPherson believes it’s exactly the opposite.

“I think anyone can play man,” said McPherson, who came from playing primarily man defense at Hopkins. “You find a good athlete; they don’t have to have any lacrosse IQ or be able to work with other people. You have to be exceptional to play the zone like we do. You have to be able to communicate, trust people … I think it’s a discredit to the zone.”

Some teams — like the Penn State men’s team, for example — have used zone defense as a strategy shift midgame to throw an opponent out of a rhythm. The Nittany Lions did it against Princeton in the second round of the NCAA tournament, quieting the Tigers after a hot start.

Denver doesn’t use it as a change of pace. It’s all zone all the time. And Kelly doesn’t think the “Hot Pink” defense is going anywhere.

It started as a way to play to the strengths of Maddie Stevenson, the Pios’ goalie from 2014-17. Kelly had floated in and out of a zone before, but Hannah Hook — the goalie before Stevenson — was so good with a man defense in front of her that Denver let it ride. When it came time to adapt to a new goalie, Kelly studied the zones of Stony Brook and USC, among others, to create her own version.

Now it’s Emelia Bohi between the pipes, and Kelly thinks it’s been her play that has elevated the unit beyond its already stingy reputation. Denver considers Bohi as an eighth defender. And how could you not feel confident when the odds are 8-to-7 on every possession?

That confidence leads to joy playing defense.

“We’ve heard it all — all the doubters and the negativity about the zone,” Thacker said. “They don’t know how fun it is and what it’s like to have the absolute trust in the person next to you. You can go for broke, and your teammate can pick you up.”


Denver's defense allowed just 5.83 goals per game in its 22-0 start.


The class of the Big East the last four seasons, Denver plays a gutsy style that’s easy to get behind. The Pios take pride in what they do. Offense, defense, draws … it’s all of equal importance.

“All the little girls are at our games, and they want to meet everyone, and they all say they play attack,” McPherson said. “These shy girls in the back say, ‘I play defense.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, be proud of that.’ You have to be a special type of player to not want all the glory or the hype but put your body on the line for everyone every day.”

For as pressure-filled and exhausting as Denver’s defense is, it’s also an incredible amount of fun. McPherson, who took a year away from college after graduating from Johns Hopkins in 2022, is having the time of her life — so much so that she’ll return in 2024 for one last season of eligibility.

“Maybe we’re just like the misunderstood stepchild,” Kelly said. “People discount how fun defense of any kind can be.”

Thacker, too, is loving the challenge. She wasn’t necessarily a zone defender in high school at McDonogh (Md.), so learning the ins and outs of Kelly’s scheme has been equal parts difficult and fruitful. She’s earned USA Lacrosse Magazine first-team All-American honors in both 2022 and 2023.

“Our confidence has been building over the last four years since I’ve been here,” she said.

The journey culminates this weekend in uncharted territory for Denver. It’s strength versus strength. Northwestern has only once scored fewer than 13 goals (eight against Michigan in the second round of the tournament). The Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the country. Izzy Scane is a Tewaaraton Award finalist and frontrunner.

But the opponent doesn’t matter. Once the Pioneers tucked into that zone, good luck. It’s their way or the highway.

“Keep underestimating it,” McPherson said. “You’ll struggle to beat it.”