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When rivals clash, team spirit soars

Photo by Trevor Brown Jr

If you don’t think rivalries are important to University of Denver student-athletes, Kohen Olischefski will quickly put that misconception to bed.

“It’s engrained in this program. All of our games are very important, but there’s just something a little extra when you get ready to play a rival,” says the current captain of the Pioneers hockey team. “You learn to hate the other guys pretty quick.”

Olischefski learned about DU’s rivals during the recruiting process. Rivals plural. We’re not just talking about the school’s long history with Colorado College.

In recent years, University of Minnesota Duluth and University of North Dakota have emerged as fierce rivals. Along with DU, the three schools are the only programs to win a national championship since 2016.

“When you have big games and big moments against league opponents, that’s really what kicks the rivalries into another gear,” says David Carle, the Richard and Kitzia Goodman head coach for men’s hockey. “When you end another team’s season or they end yours, it just adds a different level of hurt or joy.”

In 2016, when North Dakota won the national championship, they ended Denver’s season in the Frozen Four. The next year, when the Pioneers won the championship, they defeated Minnesota Duluth in the title game. Now UMD has won back-to-back championships, something that doesn’t sit well with DU.

“They have won two championships since my senior class has gotten here, and I think they are viewed as the team to beat,” Olischefski says. “In that sense, I consider it a rivalry for us.”

Targeting a rival as the team to beat animates the DU women’s gymnastics team as well. University of Oklahoma, which competes in the Big 12 Conference with DU, has won four of the past six national championships. As the Pioneers have emerged as a top-five program, they have come to focus on beating the best.

“We continue to measure our success against Oklahoma,” says head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart. “That’s the team to chase, because you always want to chase the top team in the country, and it just so happens that team is in our conference.”

Unlike in many other team sports, in gymnastics you can’t control how the opponent performs. Kutcher-Rinehart says this allows the Pioneers to compete against the best, while not worrying about who’s in the gym against them.

“There is no offense to our defense. We don’t worry about what other teams are doing, because we can’t control their gymnastics,” she says. “If we happen to beat the best in the process of doing that, fantastic.”

Whether their teams compete in the gym, on the ice or in the field, coaches find that rivalries present special challenges. 

“You’ve got to be careful about overhyping a game,” says Bill Tierney, head coach of the men’s lacrosse team. “The emotion can wear you out and making it more special than others is natural because they are a rival, but once it’s over, it’s really just another game.”

University of Notre Dame is the lacrosse team’s biggest rival. “People are passionate about loving Notre Dame or not loving Notre Dame,” Tierney says.

The history between the two programs dates to the mid-1990s, when lacrosse was growing in the West. Denver, Notre Dame, the Air Force Academy and a handful of other schools were part of the Great Western Lacrosse League (GWLL). The programs would compete for one automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The GWLL has since dissolved, and Denver and Notre Dame now compete in different conferences, but the two continue to compete head-to-head each year.

“It’s a nonconference game that, in the reality of it all, is just another game, but it’s never just another game with Notre Dame,” says Tierney. 

In 2015, the Pioneers defeated the Fighting Irish in overtime to advance to the title game. DU went on to win the national championship. Two years later, they met again in the playoffs, with DU dominating Notre Dame on their way to Championship Weekend. The next year, in 2018, Denver knocked Notre Dame out of the first round of the NCAA playoffs.

“The energy, the love, the hate, the passion, whatever it is gets heightened when you play some of the most exciting lacrosse games against one team,” Tierney says. “But it is important to check your emotions so as not to go overboard.”

Whether it’s Notre Dame or Oklahoma, North Dakota or Minnesota-Duluth, coaches say their message to student-athletes never changes. Facing a fierce rival is exciting, but consistency pays off in the long run. 

“We try and treat all of our opponents the same and respect them the same in an effort to create consistent performances,” Carle says. “I just don’t think you should approach your game plan or energy any different. Anybody, no matter if they are your rival or not, can beat you on any given night.”

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