College coaching may move between teams, but a winning culture is built on consistency.
At the heart of newly appointed University of Denver women’s soccer coach Julianne Sitch’s philosophy is a focus on building connections, setting expectations and guiding high-level student athletes. It was built during her years playing and working in Chicago, from a prep star and college All-American to playing professionally before settling into the elite coaching ranks.
That journey, prior to coming to DU, culminated with her leading the University of Chicago men’s soccer team to its first national championship in program history, with the team finishing the campaign with a 22-0-1 record. Now, she’s looking to take the DU team deeper into the postseason after its years of success in Summit League play.
The transitions might seem steep on paper—going from the DIII to DI level, moving from men’s soccer back to the women’s game and trading out her longtime home for a city in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains—but Sitch says the only adjustment that matters is implementing her standards and culture with a team that’s already had plenty of success.
That confidence stems from a well-built trail of coaching prowess. Sitch played professionally overseas and for the Chicago Red Stars before moving into coaching. She had stops as an assistant with the Red Stars, the U-16 U.S. Women’s National Team and the UC women’s team prior to her stint as the Maroons’ men’s head coach.
“I’m just coaching student-athletes,” she says. “I’m coaching them to be the best they can be on and off the field. My culture doesn’t change. My style doesn’t change. My expectations don’t change, whether I’m coaching men or women, or whatever level they’re at.”
That coaching has brought about some stellar defensive soccer. In her season helming the University of Chicago Maroons, the team had 13 shutouts and allowed only 11 goals across 23 games. At Denver, Stitch is looking to build on a strong returning defense and midfield while refilling an attack that was led by now-departed seniors and graduate students.
The Pioneers finished 11-4-4 last season with an 8-0-1 run through the Summit League, winning their fifth consecutive regular-season league championship. The Pioneers’ season ended on penalty kicks, however, falling to Oral Roberts in the semifinals of the league tournament after scoreless regulation and overtime periods.
“With the rich history of DU’s success, especially in conference, we want to continue to push into postseason play,” Sitch says. “We want to make it into the first, second, third rounds of the [NCAA] tournament so we can continue to attract great student-athletes.”
Over the course of the 2022 season, the Pioneers surrendered less than one goal per game, allowing just 16 tallies in 19 contests. They surrendered only 7.1 shots per game, less than 40% of which were on net. The defense was so stifling that DU goalies dished out only 35 saves over the course of the season. The existing framework is something that Sitch says she’s excited to work with in the 2023 season.
“I think this team is going to be hard-nosed, they’re going to be gritty and they’re going to be resilient,” the coach says. “So, yes, I think we’re going to have a sound defense, but I also think we’re going to be strong in the attack. We really want to be sound on both sides.
“We want to have that sound defense and continue adding layers on the offensive end. We want them to continue being the team they’ve been, but I think we have another gear, another level, that we can continue to push to get at.”
In the early portion of this season, the Pioneers saw quick success, dropping only one of their first nine games and finishing their nonleague schedule with a record of 4-1-4.
In that span, they allowed only 1.33 goals per game and doubled opponents shot totals. Liv Moritz, a freshman from Vail, led DU with five goals, while graduate student Kaitlyn Glover had four. Freshman goalkeeper Molly Wissman had three shutouts heading into Summit League play.
Beyond the pitch, three members of her Chicago team were named Academic All-Americans and Sitch says, above all, she understands the importance of academic and holistic development of athletes at the collegiate level.
“That’s one thing that I enjoyed about U of Chicago and really drew me to DU,” Sitch says. “You’re working with really driven student-athletes. They want to be the best they can be on the field and turn around and be the best in the classroom. You want to coach and attract the student-athletes who build that culture.”