When the University of Colorado women's lacrosse team beat ninth-ranked Northwestern on February 12, it was easy to write it off as a fluke. It was Colorado's first game of the season, and anything can (and often does) happen in season openers. It was also the program's first win against a ranked team in its four-year history, and there was little to suggest it could happen again.
Then the Buffs reeled off five victories in a row, and suddenly people started taking them seriously. It wasn't just the fact that they were winning; it was how they were winning. Led by Paige Soenksen, a senior goalie from Encinitas, California, their defense gave up fewer than six goals a game. Meanwhile, their offense, fueled by Miranda Stinson, a sophomore from Manikin Sabot, Virginia; Johnna Fusco, a senior attacker from Marietta, Georgia; and Darby Kiernan, a junior from Ridgewood, New Jersey, was averaging 16 goals a game. It was a potent combination.
With each victory, the Buffs' March 12 matchup against sixth-ranked Penn State grew increasingly intriguing. Could they possibly beat another ranked opponent? The odds weren't in their favor. Not only did they have to travel across the country to the less than hospitable environs of University Park, Pennsylvania, they also had to play a team that had won its first seven games of the season, including a 9-8 victory against a strong Cornell team in Ithaca, New York on February 25.
The way yesterday's game started seemed to confirm that beating the Nittany Lions was too tall of an order for Colorado, as Penn State jumped out to an early 6-2 lead. While the Buffs were battered, they weren't broken, a toughness they inherited from their coach Ann Elliott, who in 2012 was given the awesome responsibility of building a college lacrosse team from nothing.
Coming from Northwestern, where she'd helped the school win three national championships as a player and three as an assistant coach, Elliot was given less than two years to put together a team in Boulder. Making a tough task even more difficult, she didn't have her own office at first, nor did the team have a field or a locker room. Despite this rocky start, Elliot has led her team to a winning record each year she's been coaching at Colorado. Last year's team finished with an impressive 13-5 record, but like Elliot's first two teams it couldn't get past Stanford in the MPSF tournament. For three years in a row, Colorado has lost to the Cardinal in the semifinals.
After weathering Penn State's initial onslaught in yesterday's game, Colorado went on an 11-1 run and went on to win 16-11. Six different players scored for the Buffaloes, led by Stinson who broke CU's single-game points record with five goals and four assists, both career highs, and Kiernan who extended her point streak to seven games with four goals. As she's done all season long, Soenksen had another outstanding game in goal, recording 16 saves and holding Penn State to its second lowest scoring total of the season.
"I thought overall our girls played hard," Elliott said after the game. "It wasn't always pretty, but they kept fighting together. Offensively, they continue to share the ball and responsibility and that helped us against a very good and prepared Penn State defense. Defensively, we did a good job sticking to the game plan and just staying in it even when we were down in that first half. We were able to get our sticks up on some shots and Paige did another great job making the saves."
For their efforts, Soenksen and Stinson were named the MPSF Defensive and Offensive Players of the Week for the second time this season. It was the seventh time Soenksen has been awarded that honor in her college career.
Now in just its fourth year, Colorado has a perfect 7-0 record to start the season, making them one of only three Division I teams to remain undefeated. Maryland (7-0) and Princeton (5-0) are the others. Colorado's win streak is the longest in school history and has some of its more enthusiastic fans considering the possibility of a perfect season. To do so, the Buffaloes would have to win a very difficult nonconference road game against Stony Brook on March 31, a tough game at home against perennial nemesis Stanford on April 7, and four straight conference road games to finish the regular season: USC, San Diego State, St. Mary's, and Cal.
If the Buffaloes can finish the second half of the regular season playing at the same high level at which they've been playing during the first, they have the potential to do the unthinkable: win the MPSF tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament just four years after the school fielded its first team.