It had been 383 days since the Denver men’s soccer team last lost a match. After setting a goal to reach the College Cup, they successfully got there for the first time in the program’s history. They entered the match 20-0-3, coming off back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and a fourth consecutive Summit League Tournament title. But in the 102nd minute of the national semifinal their dream came to an end and Wake Forest was headed to the final while the Pioneers were left to ponder what happened to their perfect season.
Amidst the pain, this group of players realized they had accomplished something together that had never been done. Their sacrifice and commitment was seen all season as they were continually asked to be pushed out of their comfort zone. Boasting a total of 11 in-state players, this team accomplished something that the Colorado soccer community can be proud of. After the match, senior midfielder Sam Hamilton told reporters, “We took the program to a place it has never been, which is not an easy thing to do. We built a belief for the program to feed off of for the next couple of years. We laid a road map for what it looks like to get here.”
As the second youngest head coach in the country, Jamie Franks and his staff were recently awarded by the NSCAA as the 2016 National Coaching Staff of the Year. When Franks took over in 2015, he was taking over a program built on recruiting high character individuals. That is something he learned from Bobby Muuss, current head coach of Wake Forest. Franks has high praise for Muuss, calling him his “mentor.” In 2005 as a Wake assistant, Muuss recruited Franks to play for the Demon Deacons where he won a national championship in 2007. Given their close relationship, when Muuss was building his character-driven program at Denver, Franks joined him as an assistant. When Muuss left for Wake Forest, the returning players at Denver wanted Franks to get the job. In his two seasons since being hired, the Pioneers are 35-2-6, haven’t lost in the past two regular seasons and they believe this is just the beginning.
The team is surprisingly young and will return most of the roster that finished 3rd in the final NSCAA poll, the program’s highest ever ranking. Those returning will be led by 6’3” sophomore goalkeeper Nick Gardner. Gardner finished the season with 13 shutouts and 13 goals against in the 23 games he started. Also back is their leading goal scorer, forward Andre Shinyashiki (9 goals), and Kortne Ford, a three-year starter from Greeley, CO. Franks recently told the Denver Post, “I’m biased, but I haven’t seen a better center back come out of college soccer here in five or six years.” Ford has been training with the Rapids since he was about 18 and is rumored to be in discussion with the professional club and could potentially forgo his senior season. The Pioneers will also return junior forward, Blake Elder who was second on the team with 7 goals scored and split starts with Shinyashiki.
Those graduating from the squad can leave knowing they are the group who has laid the foundation for consistent success. They include midfield captain Sam Hamilton, who has played the most matches in program history as well as defender Reagan Dunk, NSCAA First Team All-American. Dunk and Hamilton have both been invited to the 2017 MLS Combine which takes place in Los Angeles from January 8-12, followed by the 2017 MLS SuperDraft on January 13. Coach Franks will be traveling to the combine as one of the coaches of the four combine teams. Also graduating are local midfielder and Colorado Rapids prospect, Karsten Hanlin (5 goals, 8 assists) and midfielder Chandler Crosswait who started every game this past season for the Pioneers.
With a team hungry for more, the Pioneers are sure to be back next season looking to book their ticket to the College Cup at PPL Park in Philadelphia. One thing is certain, the local soccer community in the Denver area has taken notice and was reminded there is quality Division-1 soccer in their own backyard. Ciber Field has become a strong home field advantage and should be ready to rock next season as the Pioneers go for it again. After the cup loss, Franks reminded his players that he lost his first national semifinal and the next year they came back and won the championship. He said, “The reason it hurts so badly is because it was genuine and honest. I love those guys. This year there is absolutely nothing to hang your head on… this is not the last you’ll hear about Denver we’ll be back.”
When your actions meet your ambitions, amazing things can happen.