CU women's lacrosse preview: UMass
MATCHUP: UMass Minutewomen (16-3) vs. Colorado Buffaloes (16-3) in first round of the NCAA Tournament.
GAME TIME: 5 p.m. MDT, Friday, Dunning-Cohen Champions Field, Penn University, Philadelphia.
BROADCAST: Live stream and stats available at pennathletics.com.
LEADERS: UMass — Goals: A Hannah Burnett, Jr., 58; Assists: A Holly Turner, Jr., 41; Points: Turner, 80; Goalie: Lauren Hiller, Fr., 10.88 goals-against average, .440 save percentage. Colorado — Goals: A Johnna Fusco, Sr., 50; Assists: A Darby Kiernan, Jr., 23; Points: Kiernan, 72; Goalie: Paige Soenksen, Sr., 8.18 goals-against average, .502 save percentage.
NOTABLE: After a 1-3 start that included an 11-7 loss against the Buffs, UMass enters the match with a 15-game win streak. That includes a 13-12 victory against Richmond on Sunday in the Atlantic 10 Conference championship match. It was UMass' ninth consecutive league championship...Fusco needs two goals to match Kiernan's 2015 team record of 52 goals in a season. Kiernan, who owns 49 goals, already has set new CU marks for assists and points in a season...Kiernan and Fusco combined to score seven of CU's 11 goals in its Feb. 17 win at UMass...Soenksen ranks sixth in the nation in save percentage...The winner will play either Navy or the host Penn Quakers, the tournament's No. 7 seed, in a Sweet 16 match on Sunday.
It is uncharted territory for the Colorado women's lacrosse team. Yet given the immense hurdles a now-veteran squad has made in just a few short seasons, it is one the Buffs believe they are more than ready for.
CU has reached the promised land of NCAA women's lacrosse for the first time in the fourth-year program's short history, with the Buffs' NCAA Tournament debut set for Friday at 5 p.m. MDT against UMass at Penn.
For coach Ann Elliott and her senior class, a group that began the Buffs' program in 2014, the tourney date is the culmination of four years of dedicated work that slowly turned a dream into reality.
"Nothing really changes from what we've done all year. We have the same mentality — one game at a time," senior goalie Paige Soenksen said. "I think there's just an added sense of urgency because if you lose you go home.
"You wouldn't be nervous if you didn't care. So the fact that people are probably nervous and anxious and excited about Friday means that we've invested so much in this program and we care so much about the success of it. We want to all take ownership and responsibility and come out and compete."
Among the priorities for the Buffs during a near two-week lull leading up to Friday's battle has been to shore up some of the defensive shortcomings that arose during the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.
Despite a thrilling 14-13 win in the semifinals against Stanford, the Buffs ultimately surrendered a season-most goal total in consecutive MPSF tourney games, culminating in a 16-11 loss against USC in the championship match.
While CU's defensive scoring average of 7.84 goals per game remains the No. 3 mark in the nation, the Buffs will look to regain the defensive form that has held 12 opponents to single-digit goal totals this season.
"We've had really hard practices, which I think are beneficial because they've made us work harder," junior defender Sarah Brown said. "There are just no excuses to be made now. We're going to be doing everything we possibly can to be ready."
In UMass, the Buffs face an opponent they defeated 11-7 in the second game of the season on Feb. 17. The victory against the then-No. 16 ranked Minutewomen occurred just five days after a season-opening win at No. 9 Northwestern, marking the first two victories against ranked squads in program history.
Elliott, who played a part in six national championships as a player and then an assistant coach at Northwestern, isn't certain whether CU's previous victory against UMass counts as an advantage. However, her confidence remains unflinching that her squad will embrace its first opportunity on the biggest stage of NCAA women's lacrosse.
"The biggest challenge for us now is just realizing it's a new season, it's a new start," Elliott said. "Nothing that we've done in the past matters, whether it's good or bad. We start fresh. That's an exciting opportunity, along with them understanding this is all they have. There's nothing after this. For us, it's win or go home.
"I think the challenge when you haven't been there before is handling the emotions and the excitement. I think sometimes when you get in this situation you feel like you have to do more than you've ever done before, when you really just have to do exactly what we've done all year."