Lacrosse boom leads to first-place showdown between CU Buffs and USC

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Molly Rovzar, left, is one of two SoCal native seniors on the Buffs.

Just a few days ago, Molly Rovzar received the sort of news that seemed improbable, if not altogether impossible, while growing up.

Rovzar, a native of Newport Beach, Calif. and a senior defender for the Colorado women’s lacrosse team, learned earlier this week that the younger sister of a good friend had committed to play lacrosse at Johns Hopkins.

Of course, Johns Hopkins is the sort of traditional east coast lacrosse power that, until recent years, rarely bothered looking west of the Mississippi River for recruits. Yet the sport has exploded in southern California in much the same manner as it has in Colorado over the past decade or so, allowing for bigger and more plentiful opportunities to players like Rovzar.

An impressive ramification of the sport’s continued westward expansion will be on display Friday as two programs relatively new to the college lacrosse scene, No. 6 Colorado and No. 9 USC, meet in what likely will prove to be the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season championship game (6 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network).

“It’s definitely becoming more common now for (southern California) kids to commit to D-1 schools,” Rovzar said. “I think the level of play has increased a lot and there are much more local club teams that do make the travel to the east coast and are able to practice a lot more. I didn’t really have that opportunity as much, so it’s super exciting to see. Kids are picking up the sport at a much younger age. You can’t really go back, but it would’ve been fun to have started playing lacrosse a little earlier.”

Rovzar and goalie Paige Soenksen are two SoCal native seniors on CU’s teams preparing to visit their old stomping grounds this weekend, with the Buffaloes completing the road trip Sunday at San Diego State.

Like Rovzar, Soenksen had to seek out her opportunities to play while growing up. Now she has been the starting goalie at CU for the first four seasons of the program’s existence.

“The lacrosse boom hadn’t quite hit, that’s for sure,” said Soenksen, a native of Encinitas, Calif., just north of San Diego. “I was lucky that my area had a couple youth teams and leagues that we could play in, but it was nothing like the east coast. Definitely there was a lack of lacrosse growing up, but I was lucky enough to see the start of the boom.”

Goals could be at an unusually high premium when the Buffs battle USC on Friday. The Trojans, who started their program one year earlier than CU in 2013, rank first in the nation in scoring defense at 6.57 goals per game. The Buffs are a close second at 7.15.

While Soenksen ranks fourth in the nation with a .554 save percentage, her counterpart at USC, Gussie Johns, is tied for 13th with a save percentage .497. The discrepancy is a testament to the stellar team defense of USC, a formidable front the Buffs will have to solve in order to win the showdown between the only two unbeaten teams within the MPSF.

“They lost a few key players last year, and I think they’ve gotten better every day and every game this season,” CU coach Ann Elliott said. “They really play a strong team defense. They play a zone and they do the little things really well. They’re aggressive in their zone and put a lot of pressure on you but they do it in a way that doesn’t really give you other opportunities when you get out of the pressure.”

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