For the seventh time in eight years, the University of Denver is the best. As the recipients yet again of the Learfield Sports Division I AAA Directors’ Cup, DU has once again been recognized as the top non-football school in the country.
The honor comes not long after a Pioneers team hoisted the school’s 30th title when, in spring 2015, the men’s lacrosse team won the national championship by defeating the University of Maryland.
The hunt for the Pioneers’ eighth Directors’ Cup in nine years begins soon. And it’s off to a promising start: Coaches polled in Denver’s conference, the Summit League, have decided that the Pioneers volleyball team, as well as the men’s and women’s soccer teams, are favorites to win the title.
In order to get a better understanding of what’s ahead, the University of Denver Magazine asked the coaches of each winter and fall team to talk about what they’re looking forward to most in this upcoming season.
Jamie Franks doesn’t have to sell recruits on being a Pioneer. Others have done the job for him.
This past spring, USA Today ranked Denver the fourth-best school in the country at which to play men’s soccer. It’s a ranking Franks has capitalized on by bringing in players he describes as selfless and fully committed to embodying both parts of the student-athlete experience.
“We have no egos,” Franks says. “Over the past three or four years we’ve gotten open-minded, really high-character guys.”
Franks, in his first full year as head coach, says he’s most looking forward to a team full of men he brought in himself. As an assistant, he was responsible for recruiting. That meant that when he got promoted he was looking at a locker room full of players he’d known since they were in high school.
In particular, Franks is excited to see what contributions can be made to the team by senior Jordan Schweitzer and junior Sam Hamilton. “My first line of business was to make those two captains,” Franks says. “If we’re going to have a successful year, it’s because those two guys are playing well.”
Veteran head coach Jeff Hooker knows better than most that winning can sometimes come down to the simplest things. Like being prepared for the weather.
Last year, Hooker set a milestone by coaching in his 500th game. His Pioneers continued his streak of nine consecutive seasons with double-digit wins. But the season ended on a sour note, as the Summit League Championship was lost during a penalty shootout against South Dakota State.
Having spent the previous two years playing in the Summit League, Hooker says he and his coaching staff are now better able to prepare their players for the conditions. Whereas before he played in conferences that required travel to the sunny West Coast or steamy Florida, things are different now. “This was a learning lesson for me as a coach,” says Hooker, of having to play in sub-freezing weather. “This year we’ll go up a day early, just in case it’s cold, so we can better acclimate.”
Not that Hooker isn’t looking forward to returning to some of the towns he and his staff have gotten to know over the past two seasons. “We were going in blind,” he says, “but now we’ve found the little mom-and-pop-type restaurants we like going to. We feel a lot more comfortable.” And a lot more prepared, he says, to do what his team just missed out on last year: winning the Summit League. It’s an accomplishment his peers seem to think is likely, considering Hooker’s fellow head coaches in the Summit League just voted his team favorites to win the title.
Coming off the best year in team history, Coach Brian Schrader knows that expectations for his men’s and women’s swim teams are high. He aims to keep them there.
Last year was a season of firsts. Schrader’s Pioneers broke more than half of the team’s school records for both the men and the women. And two of his swimmers medaled at the NCAA Championships, where Denver qualified and competed in relays for the first time in school history.
“We have a very young team, and what I’m looking forward to this year is being ranked in the top 25,” says Schrader, who’s heading into his 10th season as coach. “That’s our goal.”
Though top women’s swimmer Samantha Corea has graduated, Schrader remains optimistic about not only repeating his team’s success last year, but besting it. “We won the Summit League Championships handily, and we’ll do that again,” he says. “We want to stay at or near the top of the mid-majors for the entire year, and I think we’ll accomplish that as well.”
Home-court advantage is a privilege Denver’s volleyball team has never experienced during the playoffs before. They will this year, however, thanks to Coach Jesse Mahoney and the best team in school history.
Last year, Mahoney’s Pioneers went 27-7, won the Summit League regular season championship, won the league tournament, and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Which is exactly where Mahoney expects to end up this season, too.
“That’s been the goal of our program for a while,” he says. “Because we had so much success last year, and because we returned so many players, that’s the gold standard for us: repeating that experience.”
The path to that goal will be a little easier, given that Mahoney’s Summit League competitors will have to travel to Denver for the tournament. It doesn’t hurt, too, that out of a roster of 15, Mahoney has the luxury of bringing back 11 players, all of whom have now tasted unprecedented success.
“We’ve got players who buy into that goal and know how hard they have to work to achieve it,” says Mahoney. “They certainly feel like it’s within our grasp.”
A new era of men’s tennis starts this fall, as new head coach Ricardo Rubio — who spent the past 13 years at the University of Texas — looks to take the program he just inherited to the same level as he did the UT squad.
“I feel like this team has a legitimate shot at being a Top 25 team,” says Rubio, who took over the program on Sept. 2. “It’s a team that has been pushing to get in that upper group. I feel like this year they can break through a little more.”
Rubio says he is excited to coach all of his new players, especially seniors Henry Craig and David Fox. “I’ve just been learning my way around campus so far,” he says. “But I can’t wait to get started.”
Being the best means competing against the best, a mantra that women’s tennis coach Christian Thompson hopes will ring true with her players this year. On top of a full schedule to start the fall, Thompson’s Pioneers will ring in the new year by playing defending national champion Vanderbilt.
“That’s going to be a great experience for us,” she says. “To see what it looks like to play at the highest level.”
Thompson’s third year as head coach ended with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. It begins this year with a renewed commitment to fitness. “One of our big goals this fall is to get in better shape,” she says. “We’re going to have more morning workouts. We’re going to push our players to be a little tougher.”
That push comes partly as a result of graduating two-time captain Michelle Garpenlov. “We lost something in the leadership department,” she says. But Thompson is equally excited about newcomer Bianca Mok, a five-star recruit and the top-rated player in her home state of Idaho. “The big thing for us is getting the girls to understand their game and their individual goals.”
Pioneers Hockey Coach Jim Montgomery has a lot to look forward to in the 2015–16 season. Rising sophomore Danton Heinen fulfilled all of his potential and more during a freshman season that saw him lead the conference in scoring. And with Colorado native Troy Terry coming in, says Montgomery, “we have a lot more speed and skill up front than we have had here in the last little while.”
Speed and strength are two of his team’s biggest focuses this offseason, says Montgomery. “Our entire team goes to work on their explosiveness. They work on their weaknesses in order to be the most fit college hockey team in the country.”
That focus is especially important for players like Heinen, who, despite his talent, wasn’t drafted until the fourth round by the NHL’s Boston Bruins over concerns about his relatively slight frame. Heinen’s success despite his size was one big reason the Pioneers made it all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals last year. But Montgomery says that’s not his ultimate goal. “We took a big step last year,” he says, “and we need to take a step this year to get Denver back where it belongs: among the nation’s elite.”
Erik Billinger is only in his second year as head coach of Pioneers’ men’s golf. But an offseason full of changes has given him a lot to look forward to.
First came the additions made to the University-owned course in Highlands Ranch. This season the team, along with anyone paying to play the course, will have 10 new tee boxes and 400 extra yards to choose from. “It’s one way to help prepare us,” he says.
Another way is by doing everything he can to get into the country’s best collegiate tournaments. “We begged our way into a lot of top-ranked tournaments,” he says. “We really improved our schedule, which is the best way to improve your ranking.”
Playing against top-flight competition means more than just a ranking. “It means we’re not awestruck when we go against the best teams in the country because we’ve seen them before.” And beyond the competition, it also pays dividends for Billinger’s players, who suddenly find themselves in the privileged position of playing some of the best courses in the world, like an upcoming trip to Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
For Lindsay Kuhle, the start of a new season means expanding the global reach of a team that was already chock-full of international athletes. Five of her seven players were born overseas, including two new recruits, one from England and the other from Austria.
“I think the fact that we have two players who are international who have a lot of experience at a high level will bring more competition to our team,” Kuhle says.
Those freshmen will join one sophomore from Namibia and two juniors from Norway and Ireland — the result of an international recruiting pipeline that began with Pioneer star Tonje Daffinrud. “The coaching staff goes to Europe every year to recruit,” says Kuhle. “They know us and we know them, which is a big advantage when you’re trying to bring people from overseas.”
Coach Kerry Cremeans’ first goal for the Pioneer women’s basketball team is straightforward. “Obviously we want to cut down the net at the end of the season,” she says.
It’s the second goal that sets her and Denver apart: “We also want to be national champions in the classroom.”
For Cremeans, that means getting her Pioneers to buy into the vision of having the No. 1 collective team GPA in the country. It’s not without precedent; two season ago, she says, the team was ranked eighth. But new assistant coach Nettie Respondek — who came from St. Francis in New York, consistently one of the top-ranked academic women’s basketball teams in the country — provided Cremeans with the framework to really sell the idea to her players.
“She brought forth that wording of ‘national champions in the classroom,’” says Cremeans. “When you frame it that way, it has a little more bang to it.”
Not every coach looks forward to a team full of underclassmen. For Pioneers men’s basketball coach Joe Scott, it’s something he embraces. “Ten or 11 of our players will be freshmen or sophomores,” he says. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the country, and I think that’ll be good for us.”
Turnover hasn’t been unusual for Scott. Not long ago came a stretch in which Scott and the Pioneers played in three different conferences in the same number of years. But now, having established himself and the team in the Summit League, he says the time is right to wipe the slate clean. “We need that kind of freshness,” he says. “It’s helped invigorate me and the program.”
As for how all of those freshmen and sophomores perform, Scott isn’t shy about facing up to the challenges. “When it comes to youth, it really comes down to how quickly somebody gets it,” he says. “But I like what we have. I like our chances.”