Serves Them Right

Women's tennis is the latest from the new Pi dynasty.

If it's not one thing, it's another. The Sharks have laid it to Abby and Foppa. Melo and the Nugs got mauled by mad dogs. The guards are swabbing electrolytes on Gary Barnett's leg, and Rockies pitchers are falling by Walgreens again for those big bottles of Zoloft. The upstart hoopsters of Air Force? After lofting them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Kennedy administration, their coach promptly split for Princeton. By the way, the Broncos have no running back.

So where does the average local sports junkie turn in this moment of need? Well, the University of Denver wouldn't be a bad choice.

On April 10, the underdog Pioneer hockey team overcame a long season of adversity and withstood a last-minute, six-on-three barrage of black rubber by the Maine Black Bears to win their first national championship in 35 years. It was a return to greatness that would have thrilled DU alumnus Keith Magnuson, the former NHL star who visited regularly with current Denver players before being killed last December in a car crash.

DU tennis coach Dana Young (left) with freshman star 
Rachel Sackmaster.
DU tennis coach Dana Young (left) with freshman star Rachel Sackmaster.

Later in the month, the women's golf team -- led by two freshmen, no less -- won their first-ever Sun Belt Conference championship and found themselves a few days later grinning for cameras on the Golf Channel. This week they're competing in the NCAA West Regional. Even more amazing, the 20-1 DU women's tennis team last week turned back the University of South Alabama at the league tournament -- on USA's home courts in Mobile. South Alabama had won twelve straight Sun Belt titles before falling to the Pis, and you don't have to know a half-volley from Serena Williams's left foot to see what an advance this represents. Says fourth-year DU coach Dana Young: "I don't think a lot of people knew Denver even had a tennis team a few years ago. Now we're going to the NCAAs, and hopefully we'll continue going from here on out."

For those who haven't noticed, many of DU's once obscure athletic programs are on the rise. For more than a quarter-century after the school dropped football, back in 1960, its hockey team -- which won five national titles between 1958 and 1969 and often looms large in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association -- and its formidable skiers were the only NCAA Division 1 players on campus. In 1998, though, DU joined the top level in nine additional sports -- men's and women's -- just as it was in the midst of an ambitious building program that included the gold-spired Ritchie Center, an elegant new home for hockey, basketball and other sports. Early success was hard-won: DU's women gymnasts have reached the post-season for six straight years, and women's soccer has a string of three NCAA appearances, but the new men's programs in sports such as swimming and hoops have struggled -- at least in the standings. The women's basketball team reached the Big Dance just once -- in 2001, after which star forward Misa Pavlickova was taken in the first round of the WNBA draft. This spring, women's golf and tennis came into bloom.

All in all, not bad for a new kid on the big-time playing fields. Not bad at all for an elite private school with just 4,300 undergraduates that is sometimes regarded -- unfairly -- as a kind of academic boutique. When the hockey team prevailed at the Frozen Four, everyone on campus -- including the other jocks -- felt a new surge of pride.

"It was definitely an inspiration," says the tennis team's number-one player, Yanick Dullens, who says her style is inspired by the scalding forehands and sliced backhands of Steffi Graf. "When you see your fellow student-athletes are doing well, you feel honored. You want to perform, too. The hockey team, and now the women's golf team, give us an extra push."

Not that Dullens, a junior from Susteren, Netherlands, who chose DU after a long series of transatlantic phone conversations with her coach-to-be, nor her eight teammates needed much help this season. While winning twenty of 21 contests, the 43rd-ranked Pioneers went undefeated in Sun Belt play, and they beat Colorado 4-3 in January and blasted Colorado State 6-1 in April. In just their fourth match of the year, they lost to seventeenth-ranked Brigham Young, 5-2, but the individual matches were so closely fought that the DU players started to believe. "If we'd played them later in the year," Dullens says, "we would have had a much better shot." As it is, DU won seventeen straight after its loss to the Cougars.

For the coach, a 29-year-old six-footer who played her college tennis at the University of Minnesota (the great serve-and-volleyer Martina Navratilova is her model), this season looks like only the beginning. Young will get all four of her top players back next year, and her recruiting chores have already gotten easier since knocking off South Alabama. But first, it's on to an NCAA regional (site and opponent to be determined) -- for the first time in school history. "It will be a great experience for them," Young says. "It's the first time, and we have nothing to lose. I'm just hoping that the girls will perform exactly as they did in the conference tournament." Before that one, hockey coach George Gwozdecky gave Young's charges a little pep talk in the wake of his team's win at the Frozen Four. "He talked about what he told his team before the final game -- the importance of having fun, enjoying the moment and having absolutely no regrets," Young recalls. "All of that is important, and it reiterates what we've been saying all season long."

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