DU soc­cer play­ers hopped on coach’s pitch

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KIS­ZLA Den­ver Post Colum­nist

Call the Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver men’s soc­cer team a Cin­derella story, and the Pi­o­neers will kick you in the shins with their glass slip­pers.

“Why not us?” DU coach Jamie Franks told me, with as much de­fi­ance as he could muster from his 5-foot-8 frame. “I get frustrated when I hear the ques­tion: ‘Are you sur­prised how well this soc­cer team is play­ing?’ I’m re­ally not. I’m not sur­prised at all by what’s go­ing on with this pro­gram.”

Wear­ing glasses and a suit as the DU team bus got ready to roll on a trip to the fi­nal four, Franks looked about as threat­en­ing as your friendly neigh­bor­hood bank teller. The com­pet­i­tive fire in­side him, how­ever, is big enough to take on the world and torch con­ven­tional wis­dom.

So when Franks is coach­ing the U.S. men’s na­tional team dur­ing the knock­out stage of the World Cup in 2034, re­mem­ber you read it here first.

But first let me tell you the story of how the Pi­o­neers (20-0-3) crashed the party at the Col­lege Cup, where Den­ver plays Fri­day against Wake For­est, with

the win­ner earn­ing a berth in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

Shortly af­ter be­ing named DU coach at the ten­der age of 28, the baby-faced Franks called a team meet­ing.

“The first thing Jamie did when he took over was to sit us all down and say, ‘If you don’t be­lieve we can win a na­tional cham­pi­onship, then get off the bus. Get off the bus right now,’ ” re­called DU mid­fielder Karsten Han­lin, a fifth-year se­nior.

“It def­i­nitely blows your mind, be­cause ev­ery ath­lete that goes off to col­lege has the goal to win a na­tional cham­pi­onship. But we all know that’s not prob­a­ble, be­cause there are some­thing like 200 teams and only one cham­pion ev­ery year. From Day One, though, (Franks) in­stilled the be­lief in all of us. He has held us to a higher stan­dard, and we’ve put in the work. There have been some doubts along the way. But those doubts are gone. There isn’t a sin­gle guy on this team that doubts we can do it.”

When Han­lin left Cherry Creek High School to join a col­lege pro­gram less than 30 min­utes from his house, the Pi­o­neers were com­ing off a 5-11-3 sea­son. “When I com­mit­ted to the pro­gram, we were ranked 88th or 90th in the coun­try,” Han­lin said.

Five short years later, soc­cer is as much a source of ath­letic pride at DU as hockey or lacrosse. Soc­cer made in Colorado is for real, and it’s real good. Han­lin, who has scored five goals and added eight as­sists this sea­son, is among six play­ers in the Pi­o­neers’ start­ing lineup who grew up in the state.

Yes, I ad­mit it’s a stretch to pre­dict Franks will even­tu­ally walk the side­line as coach of the USMNT. But give me 100-1 odds, and I’d put money down on him this very minute. Please re­mem­ber that Bruce Arena won four con­sec­u­tive NCAA cham­pi­onships as coach of Virginia from 1991-94.

“It’s not al­ways the most tal­ented team,” said Franks, who be­lieves a soc­cer ros­ter loaded with skill but short on char­ac­ter is go­ing to walk off the pitch in dis­ap­point­ment. “It’s the best team.”

The Pi­o­neers are not one of the four most-tal­ented teams in col­lege soc­cer. But this trip to the fi­nal four is no one-time fluke for Den­ver.

“The first of many, we hope,” Franks said.

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