In her 17th year with the program, Women’s Lacrosse Head Coach Liza Kelly led the team through a record-breaking season. Not only did the team fight their way into the program’s first-ever NCAA Division I semifinal appearance—the first team west of the Mississippi to do so—but they also went undefeated throughout their 17-game regular season.
Finishing off the year with 22 victories and a single defeat, Kelly and her staff were named Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Division-I West/Midwest Region Coaching Staff of the Year—her third regional coaching award in her time leading the Pioneers.
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Kelly’s passion for lacrosse has been lifelong. “I watched neighbors across the street playing when I was little, my dad played—honestly, it was kind of what you did when you grew up in Maryland,” she says. “If you were playing sports, lacrosse was part of it.” Kelly spent four years as a midfielder while playing at the University of Delaware, where she earned All-America honors three years in a row, before joining the United States National team from 1997 to 2001.
Her passion for coaching, however, came later. Studying international relations and religious studies during her undergraduate years, Kelly was considering graduate school but had not decided what her next step would be. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But I had a law professor who said, ‘Do what you love.’ That was my eureka moment,” Kelly says. “I was like ‘Oh, well I love lacrosse, duh, why don’t I coach?’”
Kelly first landed at Towson University, where she served as an assistant coach for three years. Then she made the step up to head coach at Boston University, leading the team to two NCAA Tournaments and being recognized as America East Coach of the Year twice during her five-year stint leading the Terriers. After finishing up the 2006 season, Kelly was ready for a move. And with the head coach position opening up at DU the following season, Kelly and her husband packed up and headed west.
Coming from lacrosse’s traditional stronghold in the Mid-Atlantic states to the Rocky Mountain region was not without its challenges, Kelly says. “Denver still felt like a spot on the map where people that wanted to go to Colorado and wanted to play lacrosse could do both, but maybe not at the level of seriousness they were doing it back East,” she says. “That was probably the biggest challenge I felt we had as a coach—to get everyone to buy into the grind a little bit. To the idea that you can work hard and play hard and be successful—but you have to do both, you can’t just do one or the other.”
The challenge of adjusting to the new team and Colorado’s lacrosse culture, Kelly says, was an exciting opportunity. “Those first couple of teams that I had were a blast to coach,” she says. “They were fun, they were really open-minded, and they were a tight-knit group.” So tight, in fact, that countless players from Kelly’s early teams were packed into the stands during the 2023 semifinals. “I definitely feel the pride that some of those earlier players have in our team,” Kelly says.
Building strong bonds is at the core of Kelly’s approach to coaching. Utilizing a variety of methods both on and off the field—from practices and games to team-wide competitions in hotels between games and the occasional reading assignment—Kelly has created a sense of community in each of the teams she has led.
But winning games takes more than just a sense of connection—and Kelly is committed to ensuring her players have the skills and ability to succeed season after season. “I think I’m an intense coach with a high level of fun,” she says. “I want to be a players’ coach. I want to be able to joke around with the players and have lifelong relationships with them, but I also think that it’s my job to make sure we get the very best out of them when they’re here for their four years.”
Beyond skills, commitment and relationships, the recipe for this season’s 22-game winning streak required a few special ingredients. “It’s a bit of all of that with a little love thrown in and some incredible senior leadership,” Kelly says. “Our leaders this year on the field were really mission-driven but process-focused.” The team’s dedication to their craft, Kelly says, was also a driving factor. “They worked on the days that people don’t want to work. If the weather was cruddy, or they had a lot of exams going on, they found a way to dig out and grind—and have fun in that grind.”
And for Kelly, the team’s success this year cannot be measured by their undefeated streak alone. “The wins are great,” she says, “but I love seeing a player when they have that eureka moment on the field—they’ve been working on something, and they get it. It’s beyond rewarding.” Building on those moments throughout the season, the team’s confidence—and skill—grew game after game. When it came time to face Maryland this season, that confidence was visible. “It was our first opportunity to knock a top five team off, and we were looking at each other around the huddle, seeing the total belief in their eyes, and their body language and the way that they’re staring back at you as a coach like, ‘We’ve got this,’” Kelly says. “It’s powerful, to be able to look out and see not an ounce of doubt in somebody’s eyes.”
Beyond their incredible performance in each game throughout the season, the team was a powerhouse off the field too. “They have such pride in their education and the athletics,” Kelly says. “They blow my mind with what they do every day, what’s asked of them, and how well they stand and deliver.”
With the bar set high this year, Kelly is confident in the team’s ability to learn from their semifinal finish and grow into an even more formidable force on the field next season. “In a lot of ways, losing to Northwestern, while painful, was very educational,” she says. “Any time you lose to a quality team, you get to look at what they’re doing and self-evaluate and say, ‘What do we need to do to be in a position to be better than we were last year?’ and to hopefully come up with a victory.”
“We know what we want and what we’re capable of,” Kelly says. “I think this team now knows it’s possible.”