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Return to elite status the goal as No. 25 Colorado women’s lacrosse begins 2023 season

Ann Elliott Whidden begins her 10th season as the Colorado lacrosse coach when the Buffaloes open the 2023 season at Vanderbilt. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Ann Elliott Whidden begins her 10th season as the Colorado lacrosse coach when the Buffaloes open the 2023 season at Vanderbilt. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

BOULDER – With an influx of youth and some key pieces returning, Colorado begins its 10th season on Friday with hopes of returning to the top echelon of college women’s lacrosse in 2023.

After a couple of underachieving seasons, where the Buffaloes had a combined conference record of 9-8, head coach Ann Elliott Whidden hopes the 25th-ranked CU team can perform to its lofty goals and expectations. Whidden, who has been with the program since its beginning, enters this season two wins away from 100 career wins.

The Buffs open the season at Vanderbilt on Friday at noon MT.

“We’ve underachieved the last couple of years,” Whidden said after the team’s preseason scrimmage against Northwestern on Jan. 28. “We’ve done some great things but fallen short in our goals of winning a Pac-12 championship and making the NCAA Tournament. If we have the right mentality of knowing how we can play, this is a very talented team that can do a lot of great things and definitely challenge in the conference and hopefully in the NCAA Tournament.”

Once again, Whidden fields a team with a mix of returning attackers and young talent, especially defensively.

Fifth-year attacker Charlie Rudy poses as a critical figure in the offensive half after finishing last season second on the team in total points with 50 (37 goals, 13 assists). Rudy will be without her All-Pac-12 attacking counterpart Sadie Grozier, who graduated a season ago after finishing with 58 points (49 goals, nine assists).

After losing two of their top three point-scorers in Grozier and Chloe Willard (39 points), the Buffs will turn to sixth-year senior Sam McGee (31 goals) and junior Morgan Pence (27 goals) to pick up the attacking output.

“All the returning upperclassmen are ready to take on a bigger role,” Rudy said. “With so many seniors graduating last year, we have to find contributions in other places. I am working on my leadership on the attacking end to try and be someone the team can rely upon down the stretch.”

The Buffaloes welcome 10 newcomers, nine of them freshmen.

“We have some experience in spots,” Whidden said. “A good amount of our attackers are back, but a pretty young defense overall.”

With 15 seniors departing, many of them on the defensive side, Whidden and company will be tasked with finding the best combination of experience and talent to put on the field for their opening road trip against Vanderbilt and Louisville (Sunday, 10 a.m. MT). One of the locked-in stalwarts for Whidden is senior goalkeeper Grace Donnelly, who recorded 158 saves last year with a save percentage of .443. Her leadership will be vital in getting a young defensive unit off the ground and running.

“I think getting out here [against Northwestern] and just being able to play is huge,” Whidden said. “We had some great experience in the fall, but it’s different in the spring and when it counts. I think getting all of our players out and seeing a little time in different roles is helpful for us moving forward.”

No matter the experience level, the Colorado team is ready for anything thrown at them and eager to get going come Friday.

“This exhibition game prepared us for being unprepared,” Whidden said. “We don’t know what they’ll throw at us. They [Vanderbilt] play a lot of different ways, and they’re a very well-coached team. I think being able to get out here and just play under that same sense of not really knowing and just having to focus on ourselves, compete, and be ready for those adjustments is huge. Everyone is really excited to get the season going here soon.”