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

Serves Them Right

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.

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."

Hard-hitting DU freshman Rachel Sackmaster, who comes from Alpaharetta, Georgia, and chose DU over more established tennis schools like Georgia Tech and Virginia, says she believed from the beginning that her team could topple the South Alabama dynasty. "In my mind, I had no doubt," she says. While her parents, her grandparents, her sixteen-year-old brother and the family dogs, Bogey and Mulligan, looked on in Mobile, she won her singles and doubles matches and was named most valuable player of the tournament. In part, she was motivated by DU's other recent sports successes. "It helped," she says. "I think we all have high standards, but this first year is more than I ever expected."

Young, too, was stirred when the hockey Pioneers beat Maine, and she hopes her kids can now survive the first NCAA round and get a chance to face one of the country's elite tennis schools. Stanford. Florida. Duke. Southern Cal. It doesn't matter. What does matter is the experience and confidence that would come of it. "It would be great to compete against a top team, and the fact that we did so well against Brigham Young would help. We do have a tennis team here, and we hope people will start to notice."

Certainly, Young will be noticed for her coaching skills. But she isn't ready to go anywhere. Her husband of four years, Geoff Young, is a former Northwestern University number one who now coaches the DU men's team (seventh in the Sun Belt this year), and they're just settling in with their own mixed-doubles team -- nineteen-month old Gavin (whose favorite toy is his mother's tennis racquet) and three-month-old Karin. "We are busy," Dana Young allows, "but I'm very excited about the team. It's come together. We could have a nice run."

Freshman phenom Sackmaster agrees. "I'm very optimistic about the future," she says. "I'm feeling good, and it can only get better." Hearing the lilt in her voice, it's easy to forget about the troubled Avs, the doomed Rox or the interrupted Zoomies. Here is new belief, coming from a renewed spring of hope on Evans Avenue. Who can resist it?

The Kentucky Derby grows more bizarre each May. In 1999, a 31-1 shot named Charismatic captured the roses. Last year, an out-of-the-clouds New York-bred named Funnycide won. And on Saturday, a jockey (Stewart Elliott) who had never seen the big time piloted an obscure colt from Pennsylvania (Smarty Jones) through the Churchill Downs slop toward his own moment in history. Smarty went off as the 4-1 post-time favorite in the 130th Derby -- a sign that in the end, pedigree meant less to the betting public than pluck. The horse had never been beaten in six previous starts -- not at humble Philadelphia Park, not at Oaklawn, not anywhere. Now the new feel-good story of the racing year moves on to Pimlico and the Preakness, on May 15. And once more, the hopes of every little guy who ever tore up a losing exacta ticket go with him.


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