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Revamped defense in peak form as CU Buffs women’s soccer begins NCAA Tournament

Buffs face South Alabama in first round

BOULDER, CO - Feb. 11, 2021: ...
BOULDER, CO – February 11, 2021: Colorado’s Jade Babcock-Chi and UNC’s Melina Faris look fro control of the ball. The Colorado Buffaloes hosted the UNC Bears on February 11, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Leaning on defense is nothing new for the Colorado women’s soccer team.

The Buffaloes have enjoyed a remarkable run of standout goalies under head coach Danny Sanchez, and the Buffs typically field talented defenders in front of those netminders.

Just a few weeks into the delayed 2020-21 spring season, however, it was easy to believe defense might be an unusual shortcoming. After just two games, the Buffs lost a defensive starter, with more injury setbacks on the way. This added to the pressure Washington transfer Dani Hansen faced in goal while taking over for all-time great JJ Tompkins, and a midseason attempt at an injury comeback by projected starting defender Hannah Cardenas ended after just three games.

Yet after retooling on the fly, and receiving a stellar season from Hansen, the Buffs once again have relied on defense to power their way into the NCAA Tournament. CU will make its 12th NCAA Tournament appearance, and the sixth in nine seasons under Sanchez, when they take on South Alabama in a first-round showdown Tuesday evening in Greensboro, N.C.

“It’s not a coincidence that every year we have very good goalkeeping,” Sanchez said. “I do want to give a lot of credit to (assistant) Jason (Green). Our philosophy and how we ask them to play, and ask them to play to their strengths, really maximizes what they can do. I think with Dani the main thing was to get healthy. She’d been hurt for two years. Even in the fall, I don’t think she’d have performed like she has in the spring, because it gave her another four or five months to get healthy.”

With injuries forcing frequent shuffling along the back line, Hansen has faced an average of 6.8 shots per game — far more than any season during Tompkins’ four-year career. Yet the Monarch alum enters her first NCAA Tournament game with seven shutouts and an .882 save percentage that currently equals Tompkins’ single-season record from 2017.

That run has been made more impressive by the injury issues the Buffs have overcome in the defensive lineup. Senior starter Gabbi Chapa was lost for the season due to an injury after two games. Cardenas, who started every game in 2017 and 2018, played only three midseason games before returning to the injury list. And though Sofia Weiner began the season as a midfielder, she also was an experienced defender who was lost to a midseason injury.

In their place, the Buffs have turned to a cast of youngsters around fourth-year junior Hannah Sharts, a first team All-Pac-12 selection, and senior Haileigh Adams, who has played a key role down the stretch. Freshmen Jayden Newkirk and Lawson Willis, who leads the Buffs with six assists, have stepped into the lineup, while sophomore Jade Babcock-Chi has provided a lift after moving from the midfield to defense.

“I think we’ve done a remarkable job this year with having new players step in,” said Sharts, the only defender who has started every game. “Our back line is completely all-new, and we really pride ourselves on our defense here at CU in keeping us in games and being able to control the tempo. I think we’ve done a great job, and Dani has been incredible back there as well.”

South Alabama Jaguars vs. CU Buffs women’s soccer

First round NCAA Tournament

KICKOFF: Tuesday, 5 p.m. MT, Greensboro, N.C.

BROADCAST: Live stream available at NCAA.com.

RECORDS: South Alabama 13-8-1; Colorado 9-5-2.

KEY PLAYERS: South Alabama — MF Brenna McPartland, Jr. (11 goals, nine assists); MF Morgan Cross, Jr. (seven goals, seven assists); MF Gracie Wilson, So. (six goals, two assists); GK Anita Gudmundsdottir, Fr. (.694 save percentage, 0.94 goals-against average); GK Allison Luckhardt, Fr. (.709 save percentage, 1.60 goals-against average. Colorado — F Shyra James, Fr., (five goals, one assist); D Hannah Sharts, Jr. (four goals, one assist); D Lawson Willis, Fr. (six assists); MF Shanade Hopcroft, Sr. (three goals, two assists); GK Dani Hansen, R-So. (.882 save percentage, 0.76 goals-against average).

NOTES: The winner will play 10th-seeded Oklahoma State on Friday at 5 p.m. MT…South Alabama played a fall schedule and received an automatic bid to the 48-team NCAA Tournament as the champions of the Sun Belt Conference…This is the first matchup between CU and South Alabama…The Buffs have won all five of their previous first-round games under head coach Danny Sanchez…CU completed the regular season on a 3-0-1 run…Though the regular season was shortened by four games, CU’s eight shutouts still is tied for the ninth-best total in program history.