Nation-Leading Denver Defense Turning Heads

PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER ATHLETICS


When Denver hit the road for California last week, it was more than just a business trip.

Players and coaches spent five days in the Golden State taking in the sunny beaches, hiking together, playing cards at the hotel and enjoying each other’s company. The adventure marked the Pioneers’ first spring break trip since 2019 — a “super special” experience for the team. 

“Having that uninterrupted time as a team together not only bonds you on the field, but also makes that trust grow on the field,” junior defender Sam Thacker said. “This trip was super special for our team, and we made a lot of strides building team culture.”

The trip was just one part of Denver’s season-long effort to create strong team chemistry in and out of practice. A balance of hard work and fun has always been a staple of Denver’s program, coach Liza Kelly said, but, like many programs around the country, the Pioneers faced COVID restrictions, cancellations, and limitations on team gatherings over the past two seasons. Now, Denver is working to build its dynamic and take advantage of opportunities on and off the field.

“That [strong culture] is a strength of ours with that teamwork and trust for one another,” Thacker said. “Not that it hasn’t existed in the past, but [this year] you know the person next to you is going to do their job and you have that unspoken trust. Coming off the COVID year, we’re taking nothing for granted.”

The Pioneers’ strong chemistry and hunger for more are certainly paying off. Denver is 10-1 with dominant wins over San Diego State and Drexel in California last weekend.

Denver’s defense, long one of the program’s strengths, has continued to turn heads. The Pioneers are the nation’s top scoring defense, holding the likes of Boston College, Stanford and Michigan to some of their lowest outputs this season. (Granted, Denver’s game against Boston College was called after three quarters due to frigid temperatures.)







A core of experienced upperclassmen defenders including Thacker, senior Kailee Lammers, graduate student Sammie Morton and senior Gracie DeRose anchor the Pioneers’ star unit. Thacker said the defense’s strong dynamic, ability to learn and depth have been keys to its success. Each game, someone new steps up to the plate and leads, she said.

Playing a zone defense has also been important to the unit’s tight bond, Kelly said, and takes the weight off individual players’ shoulders.

“The nice thing about playing a zone is that it is really based upon your success as a unit,” Kelly said. “You feel like you’ve gotten scored upon as a unit and that you stopped them together. It’s not so much about any one player missing a mark.”

Freshman goalkeeper Emelia Bohi is one of the sole underclassmen leading the way on Denver’s defense. Bohi, who initially played soccer and was converted to a lacrosse goalie in high school, is only in her fourth year of playing the sport. She’s in a “tough position” starting as a college freshman, Kelly said, but continues to excel.

“Her ceiling is truly limitless,” Kelly said. “Every game she realizes different things she can do within the zone, different ways to improve her game, and it’s been fun to watch her grow and be supported by the other goalies that are playing behind her.”

Denver has dominated throughout the season, only facing a handful of close matchups. Through it all, Kelly said she’s been especially proud of the team’s even-keeled nature and desire to maintain momentum.

“[I’m proud] of our ability to bounce back and play within the moment,” Kelly said. “We’ve done a good job forgetting mistakes and playing at an even level. We don’t get too high. We don’t get too low. We celebrate the little things, but we’re staying in the moment.”

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