For No. 4 Denver, the records started at the very first meet of 2019.
It upset Michigan and Alabama on the road—beating the pair for the first time since 2007 and in program history, respectively—and registered its second-highest season opening score ever.
Top 10 all-time scores followed in droves, as did highest road and postseason marks, best-for-a-freshman results, record consecutive 197-plus scores and more conference and All-American honors than the Pioneers have ever received before.
The results led to a massive increase in attention to the program. While head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart appreciates the higher profile, she wants to emphasize that the Pioneers have been building up to this spectacular season for quite some time. In fact, they’ve finished outside the top 20 only once in the last decade and last qualified to NCAA nationals in 2017.
“We’ve been strong for the last several years. So people who aren’t as familiar with the University of Denver think this is just this year or an overnight thing, which is not necessarily the case,“ she said.
Still, there’s no understating the history that Denver made in 2019. Having topped out at No. 6 in the national rankings in the team’s 44-year history, it was a landmark accomplishment when it rose to No. 5 in March. The Pioneers went on to secure their first-ever regional title, and when they advanced to the national final for the first time this weekend, they also earned a landmark No. 4 year-end ranking.
Just as the Pioneers have been able to build on the successes of past years, Kutcher-Rinehart feels that they’ve learned a great deal from their recent difficulties.
“We just haven’t had a lot of depth the last few years,” she said. “And through that challenge, we gained a tremendous amount of mental toughness, and the ability to compete with not a lot of depth made such a big difference.”
While Denver still has a smaller roster—it had 12 athletes on the floor at nationals, and only eight competed in semifinals—it was able to warm up seven or eight athletes on each event and make changes after warm up, which has not always been the case in recent years.
Sophomore Lynnzee Brown, like Kutcher-Rinehart, highlighted the team’s history even as she celebrated her own cohort’s accomplishments.
“We always talk about character, teamwork and excellence in our program and just knowing that we’re doing this for the people that came before us and who put in all this work,” Brown said. “It’s really rewarding to be a part of that group and see how excited everyone is—not just our team and our coaches but also our alumni that were here supporting us.”
Brown had a landmark of her own in Fort Worth: She became only the second Pioneer to win an NCAA championship title with a 9.950 on floor. Her predecessor, Nina McGee, won the event in 2016.
That shared accomplishment isn’t the only link between the pair.
“I have had a little bit of mentorship from an alum–Nina McGee–and that’s really helped me,” Brown said. “It’s brought out my personality. It’s brought out my confidence. So just having her support and having her tell me, ‘You know, you’re going to do this. I’m so proud of you,’ and just having her as a mentor has really been good for me.”
McGee was in the crowd Friday as Brown stood atop the podium, and as Denver beat Oregon State by only 0.1375 to qualify for its first final. According to Brown, when the scores got tight, the Pioneers’ coaches kept them focused by reminding them once again of the big picture.
“Linas [Gaveika] told us, this isn’t about the scores, it’s about making memories for our seniors.”
Article by Rebecca Scally
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