When University of Denver women’s lacrosse players use the phrase “hot pink,” they’re not referring to an outfit theme for some weekend party or the color of their favorite shoes.

Far from it.

“Hot pink” is central to DU’s team identity. It’s the name of their defense — a zone scheme created and implemented by head coach Liza Kelly that is aggressive but liberating. And it fits the Pioneers like a glove.

“(Kelly) says it all the time in recruiting that it’s a goal of hers to win the right way, and to her, that means to enjoy how we play,” associate head coach Brice Queener said. “You can see it with the defense, because the way they play is different.”

If a team can take on the personality of its head coach, look no further than the Pioneers and “hot pink.” Kelly’s defensive scheme, one of the best in the nation, attacks but allows her defenders to play with a degree of individuality and free rein.

It’s also one of the keys to the Pioneers’ success as the nation’s 12th-ranked team heading into this week’s Big East tournament hosted by DU. The top-seeded Pios play Connecticut in the opening round at 1 p.m. Thursday.

“A lot of people play a very boring, stay-at-home style — don’t get beat, don’t take chances, don’t take risks,” Queener said. “(Kelly’s) defense is completely the opposite.”

Last weekend, the No. 12 Pioneers defeated Marquette to win their third consecutive Big East regular-season title.

Denver’s defense, which ranks sixth nationally in goals allowed and first in caused turnovers per game, was the driving force behind the latest title run, funneling Kelly’s own fiery nature and competitive drive onto the field.

“Liza pushes us every day and obviously it pays off,” DU captain and senior defender Kailee Lammers said. “She knows exactly what we need. ‘Hot pink’ ,,, it’s so fun to play.”

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Denver Pioneers co-captain Kailee Lammers, (17) gets doubled teamed by Boston College Eagles players Charlotte North, (8) and Kayla Martello (38) in the second period at Peter Barton Stadium March 09, 2022.

Understanding expectations is a key part of the relationship between Kelly and her players.

It starts on the recruiting trail, where Kelly looks for elite physical abilities and lacrosse IQ, but also personality traits.

“It’s very natural in recruiting that you have certain characteristics that you like from your own teammates or from your coaches that you go out and recruit,” Kelly said. “What we try to get here are kids that are really gritty, they’re super hard-working and maybe a little chippy.”

Take freshman goalie Emelia Bohi, who only started playing lacrosse as a freshman in high school but whose goals-against average (8.20) now ranks fourth in the nation. Lammers, a local prospect from Dakota Ridge, came to DU as an attacker but was converted to defense for her sophomore year.

Whether it’s starting a first-year player at goalie or switching someone’s position to better suit their talents, Kelly is unflinching when it comes to doing what’s best for the team.

“She’s probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met besides myself,” senior defender Sam Thacker said. “When you come on this team and you’re playing for Liza, there’s some expectations that are non-negotiable: you’re competitive, you’re going to make your teammates better, you’re going to hate losing — all those things that drive us to be who we are.”

Before last week, Denver’s only loss this season came at the hands of then-No. 1-ranked Boston College in early March. Soon after intrastate rival Colorado delivered a stinging 12-10 loss to DU last Wednesday.

Just over 12 hours later, the Pios were back on the practice field, looking to regroup.

“We’re a team that keeps each other really accountable,” Thacker said. “We’re all competitive and it starts from Liza. … We were beyond (angry) with our performance (against Colorado).”

Kelly didn’t need to bring the hammer down in order to send a message to her players. In fact, the Pioneers’ practices following the loss illustrated a key pillar of Kelly’s coaching philosophy: Always strive to win, but never suck the fun out of the process.

“Liza’s just a very authentic person who has the ability to have a lot of fun,” Queener said. “I think a lot of coaches struggle with being either too friendly or too mean, or one side of the spectrum or the other. Liza has the phenomenal ability to be very demanding in a way that makes the team a lot better but also, we have a lot of fun.”

Jamie Schwaberow, Clarkson Creative via Denver Athletics

Coach Liza Kelly on the sideline as the University of Denver womenÕs lacrosse team takes on Boston College at Peter Barton Stadium in Denver, Colorado on March 9, 2022.

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