Resilient Buffaloes Ready To Start 2021 Season
BOULDER – Overcoming challenges and adversity is nothing new to the University of Colorado lacrosse team, although the obstacles of the last year are nothing like anyone has ever seen before.
A couple of things have remained constant for the Buffaloes, lacrosse and their desire to play. During the last year, they have worked through many different rules and regulations that have prevented them from being on the field together and off the field. But like all of the past challenges and adversity the Buffs have faced, it has helped them come together and now they are ready to start the 2021 season.
"They have learned a lot through the experience and have grown a lot in terms of individuals and as a team in terms of who we are and what we want to do and what it takes to do that, this year in particular," head coach Ann Elliott Whidden said. "This January and now into February has been a great start for us to be together. They are excited that just around the corner we finally have a game after it almost being a year and it's been almost two years without a championship."
The last time CU was on the field was March 8, 2020, against Coastal Carolina, a 19-8 victory for the Buffaloes in Boulder. But it has been even longer since they have played in a Pac-12 Tournament game (April 28, 2019, vs. Southern California) or an NCAA Tournament game (May 12, 2019, vs. Boston College).
But while they are excited to play, they also know they need to focus on things they can control, because there is a lot they cannot.
"They are really eager to play and have that opportunity," Whidden said. "That is our main focus, just doing everything we can off the field to make sure we can be on the field together; and take advantage of every opportunity we have."
While things could look very different this season, Colorado is starting the season in a very similar position – on the road. This marks the sixth year the Buffaloes will open their campaign away from Boulder. They will start against the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday, Feb. 18, before heading to Nashville, Tennessee, to take on Vanderbilt. It will be the first meeting for CU against both programs.
"Louisville and Vanderbilt are going to be two incredible opportunities for our team," Whidden said. "They are great teams. They are tough teams. They are going to give us a really great challenge and a really great starting point to figure out where we're at and what we need to do."
After the quick road trip, CU will be able to return to Boulder for a five-game homestand, which will give the Buffs time to settle in and regroup. Even though they return a lot of players from the 2020 team, last year's five games did not provide a lot of experience for some of the younger players.
"We lost a lot of opportunities for our young players to grow in their sophomore and junior years (last season)," said Whidden. "This will be good for us to be at home and to be able to focus in a little bit without the distraction of travel."
Once again the Pac-12 Conference will provide some great competition and the Buffs are looking forward to playing everyone twice. CU played Oregon on March 6, 2020, a 21-5 win, which was the only conference game for both teams last year. Whidden believes that all six teams have taken steps in making the league even more competitive this year, which will make all 10 conference games even more exciting.
"We're going to see a lot of growth in all of our teams from last year to this year, which is really exciting across the board to have a competitive conference like that," she said. "Everybody in our conference has faced different challenges in the fall, whether it was being able to practice in the fall with no contact or not being able to practice in the fall; some of the schools just starting practicing in January. We're all dealing with different struggles. We're all going to grow with every opportunity we get to practice this spring and every game we get. But I think it will be a fun year to see where everybody ends up."
Getting back to the NCAA Tournament is a goal every year for CU and the only way to guarantee it is to win the conference tournament. This year the Pac-12 Tournament is one week later, putting it next to the NCAA selection show, but by doing that, it gives the Buffaloes, and every other Pac-12 team, the best chance to be healthy when they go to the Pac-12 Tournament, May 5-8, in Stanford, Calif.
Colorado's roster has 37 players, including senior Julia Lisella, who is back for her sixth-year. The goalkeeper has started for the Buffaloes the last three seasons, which is important, but more importantly, she is a proven leader. She is someone Whidden is happy to have back for a bonus season.
"Julia is just such a special player and it's not often you get to have a player for six years and watch them grow and have your team grow with them," Whidden said. "Obviously Julia had a huge breakout season her first year competing for us and we know what she is capable of. She's always consistent, that is something we really love about her. You always know what you're going to get on a day-to-day basis and somedays you get even more."
This season Lisella has a veteran defense joining her. Fifth-year senior Anna Collawn, as well as seniors Eliza Cahill, Macaul Mellor and junior Sabrina Robbins were defensive starters in 2020. Another senior, Madi Wifall has also seen some good time as a defender for the Buffs and the addition of graduate transfer Kate White puts a more experienced defense in front of Lisella and that is exciting for her, the team and the coaches.
"We have some experience in there, although we have some new pieces jumping in," Whidden said. "We have a lot of players who have played together and have played with Julia. I think that is huge for a goalie and we haven't necessarily had that in the years prior. That is really exciting for her to have this opportunity to have a consistent group in front of her that she can work with and help lead."
Offensively the Buffaloes did not lose any of their top five scorers. Junior Charlie Rudy, who led the team with 20 goals returns to the line-up. She also added four assists for a team-best 24 points. Junior Chloe Willard and senior Sadie Grozier each scored 10 goals and senior Zoe Lawless recorded three hat-tricks for nine goals. Several other scorers return for the Buffs, not to mention the ones who have been waiting patiently to make their mark this season. But everyone knows that just because you did something last season or even last game, doesn't mean you will do that again. You have to keep putting in the work.
"Our players worked hard during this last year given all of the challenges they have had," Whidden said. "They've committed to things and we're excited about where they are at. Obviously this is a team sport and we have to continue to work on playing as a team and what that looks like for us.
"This is a team that starts off with hard teams and then we grow and we grow and we grow. And last season we were just about to the point where we were going to grow and you were going to see that growth and our season got cut at that point. As we turn to this non-conference portion of our season, we have new pieces in there, but I think we are excited for them and were going to see a lot of growth for this team the more they are together."
While Whidden returned a lot of talent from the 2020 team, she added 10 freshmen who joined the Buffaloes in August. They have faced their share of challenges, but Whidden is really proud of their perseverance, commitment and focus on the field.
"This is a group that wants to play and wants to get better," she said. "They want to make an impact on this team. It's a great group and we are definitely going to have some people play and make an impact, starting on February 18, and I think we're going to have some people make an impact as they continue to gain experience this year in our practices. We're really excited about what they bring to this team in all positions across the board; this really is a great group. By the time they are seniors, they are going to be a really strong group and be great leaders."
No matter how different this year looks and no matter how many curve balls the CU lacrosse team is thrown, one thing is certain. This is a group that can, and will, overcome any challenges it faces.