Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament
(All times MDT; Games at USC’s McAlister Field)
Game 1: No. 6 Cal (5-12) vs. No. 3 Stanford (11-5), 1 p.m.
Game 2: No. 5 San Diego State (9-7) vs. No. 4 Oregon (9-7), 5 p.m.
Semifinal 1: Game 2 winner vs. No. 1 USC (14-3), 1 p.m.
Semifinal 2: Game 1 winner vs. No. 2 Colorado (15-2), 5 p.m.
Championship match, 2 p.m.
It was a challenge not for the faint of heart, or for someone without a clear plan of action.
For Ann Elliott, a coach who arrived at Colorado with a meticulously detailed plan and the gumption to make certain it worked, bringing the CU Buffaloes women’s lacrosse program to life was the perfect fit.
As the Buffs enter the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament for the fourth time, they do so as one of the league’s favorites for the first time. In the five years and four seasons since being tasked with starting the CU program, Elliott has abruptly turned the Buffs into a legitimate top-10 program.
On Wednesday Elliott was rewarded for her efforts by landing the MPSF Coach of the Year honor, and CU’s opener in the league tournament on Friday marks the first step in a postseason journey that is expected to include CU’s first invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
“From my time at Northwestern, I thought building a program was something that was a really cool opportunity you don’t get a lot,” Elliott said. “That idea of being able to build something I always thought would be really neat if you had the opportunity to do it. I like Colorado. I like the Midwest and West better than anything else.
“To me, it was never about going to a big school, or going east, it was always about an opportunity that might come up to build a program and start something new and do it in a different place in the country.”
A third-team All-American as a player at Northwestern, Elliott joined the Wildcats’ staff in 2009 under coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. Ultimately, Elliott was part of six national championship teams with the Wildcats — three as a player and three as a coach.
When opportunities began to knock for Elliott to take over her own program, it was easy to assume she might eventually land at one of the many well-established college teams along the east coast. Yet starting something from scratch always held a certain allure for Elliott, and she had witnessed first-hand how fulfilling it was to reach the pinnacle of college lacrosse with a program a coach could describe as all her own.
When Elliott arrived in Boulder there wasn’t yet a field dedicated specifically for CU lacrosse. But that wasn’t much different than the situation at Northwestern when Amonte Hiller took over, with Elliott playing a key role in putting the program on the national map during her playing career.
Likewise, the template for Elliott to follow at CU was perhaps established by former Northwestern teammate Lindsey Munday. Also a former assistant at her alma mater, Munday took over the then-new program at USC in 2011, with the Trojans starting play one year ahead of the Buffs in 2013.
Last year, in the USC program’s fourth year of existence, the Trojans reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. CU is attempting to follow that precedent in its fourth season this year, with the top-seeded Trojans the likely foe for the second-seeded Buffs in the MPSF title game Sunday afternoon if CU survives either Stanford or Cal on Friday.
“When the beat us (in CU’s season opener) I think that was a huge confidence boost for them,” Amonte Hiller said. “When she got on our staff I saw how efficient she was. A good decision-maker and a good motivator. I think those are all the qualities it takes to be a good head coach. When I was talking to athletic directors about she always got my highest level of recommendation.”
Elliott is the first to admit the construction project at CU is far from over. While the Buffs will be seeking their first league title and NCAA Tournament berth, Elliott is attempting to build a template for sustained success. Whenever this season ends the Buffs will bid farewell to a senior class that helped Elliott get the program to this point. Yet as she has added depth to the roster, an influx of talented underclassmen have taken over key roles with an eye on making CU the sort of program that never rebuilds, but instead simply reloads.
“I was just going through some old stuff at my home and I came across a couple handwritten letters Ann had written me,” junior defender Sarah Brown said. “She’s good at keeping up relationships. She always wanted to know how I was doing and making sure I was OK. She’s always been very passionate about everything she does, which just drives this team. It makes us all passionate too.”