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By: Jim Hogue
Johnna Fusco and the Buffs open at home Saturday against Regis.
Brooks: Lax Home Opener Part Of Buffs’ Big Saturday
Release: February 21, 2014
By: B.G. Brooks, Contributing Editor
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BOULDER – If you’ve ever started a business, you can identify with Ann Elliott. Her startup is lacrosse at the University of Colorado, and it’s been just under two years in the making.

In the making is not completely accurate, because CU lax remains a work in progress and won’t grow out of that definition for at least a couple of years. But “Annie” Elliott is a patient business woman and her “investors” say they’re in it for the long run.

Elliott officially opened the doors of her business on Thursday, Feb. 13 in DeLand, Fla., with her young Buffs winning the school’s inaugural lacrosse venture 12-4 over Stetson. Since then, games have been lost at Jacksonville (20-13) and at No. 18 University of Denver (15-4). CU’s historic grand opening – the first home game – is Saturday at noon against Regis.

A little over a week ago, Elliott told me when she was named head coach on March 26, 2012, her first season/first game seemed an eternity away. But from there to eternity arrived in the blink of an eye.

“I remember thinking that February 2014 was such a long, long time away,” Elliott said. “Then, all of a sudden, it was here.”

Rest assured, while Elliott waited she wasn’t on hold. There was s-o-o-o much to do. A three-time national champion as a player at Northwestern, she looked to her alma mater for her staff, hiring Colleen Magarity and Hannah Nielsen. To stock their roster, the Northwestern Three looked east, west and everywhere above and in between.

CU’s first-ever lax roster is comprised of 21 freshmen and two sophomores. The geographic breakdown: four players from New Jersey, four from Massachusetts, four from Colorado, three from California, three from Maryland, two from New York and one each from Indiana, Illinois and Georgia.

In time, as her sport takes an even firmer hold in-state, Elliott wants to “seal the borders” and lure the best Colorado players to Boulder. But that doesn’t mean she wants to skimp on the travel portion of her recruiting budget.

“You want to get kids out of Colorado every year and we want the best kids that fit our style of play to stay here,” she said. “It can be a challenge; some people want to leave, but a lot want to come back once they leave – and I can understand why. But we want Colorado to be a big part of our program, we want to prove that out here it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can compete and win championships.”

I ASKED HER, WITH CU COMPETING in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF), if the Buffs would be more likely to go west rather than east to recruit. She said that won’t become a tendency: “For us it’s about getting the right kid and the right fit. We’ll go wherever we need to go . . . our sport attracts people from all over. We don’t have to stick to one state; we can go out to the different connections we have. I’ve got one assistant (Magarity) from Pennsylvania, so we’ve got East Coast connections. We’ll go where we have to find kids.”

The kids on this roster are just that – kids. Elliott, Magarity and Nielsen aren’t exactly running a day-care center, but think about it like this: at this time last year, 98 percent of her roster hadn’t been sized for caps and gowns for high school graduation.

Still, Elliott says don’t be fooled by the Buffs’ youth. Experience might be the missing ingredient, but young or not, they are hyper eager and accustomed to playing hard and competing.

“It’s very exciting,” Elliott said. “A lot of people talk about the youth here and yeah, we’re a young team on paper but our freshmen are getting a lot of experience in every game. They keep it exciting; they have the energy and the belief in themselves. Every game we go into, they go in knowing they can compete and now it’s being able to focus on the little things that make a difference.”

I wondered if coaching such a young team required more patience from her and her staff. Her answer: “Maybe a little (but) we have to be able to put ourselves back into when we were freshmen. We’ve had so many more years of experience at some things that come natural to us now. They’re not natural to our kids and we can’t expect them to be natural yet. That’s on us to kind of break it down and start reinforcing these basic things and help them learn. A little patience maybe, but I think it’s about being more able to step back and realize how you break things down so that our young kids can understand when they’ve never been put in these situations before.”

That goes both ways; Elliott, Magarity and Nielson were superior players but are doing it by the numbers as upper division college coaches. At this point – three games into her sport’s debut season – the ‘W’s and ‘L’s aren’t as critical as laying the foundation. It’s a get-it-right then get-it-done process that can’t be rushed.

“Our biggest focus is on getting better every day,” Elliott said. “I’m not too concerned with winning and losing – just the effort our kids put in every day in practice and games. We look at film, discuss are we doing the little things that it’s going to take down the road to win championships? We’re making sure they’re putting in that effort every day. If you build confidence and understand that matters and that you have to compete, we’ll get to where we want to go.”

On-field communication, said Elliott, is among the early issues that are being addressed. Handling defensive pressure when an opponent presses at midfield or beyond is another, she said. “Can our kids handle that, having that poise to make smart decisions? But those things are easy to tighten up.”

“Veteran” leadership on a basically freshman team is non-existent, but the roster’s lone Georgian – Johnna Fusco from Marietta – said leaders are emerging. Forging team chemistry “has taken us a while, but we’ve come a long way,” said Fusco, who earned the MPSF Rookie of The Week award after CU’s weekend split in Florida. “I definitely feel chemistry on offense now . . . we still have a little bit to go.”

FUSCO, A MIDFIELDER, IS AMONG a number of Buffs who cited the historical aspect of being on the ground floor of building a program among the reasons they chose CU. “Building a program and setting a lot of traditions was something I really wanted to do,” she said. “Knowing that everyone (in future classes) would come behind this team was a big factor for me.”

Ditto for Cali Castagnola, one of the trio of Californians (she’s from Alamo) on the CU roster. “Yeah, coming in with a whole new program, starting from nothing . . . I thought that was pretty cool,” said Castagnola, whose six goals are tied with Katie Macleay, Marie Moore and Fusco for team highs.

Castagnola and Fusco have been anticipating Saturday’s home opener, and both believe there’s an eagerness (and maybe a bit of curiosity) on campus about their sport. Promoting has been done in dorms, by word of mouth, and on fliers posted around campus.

“I see some of my teammates’ faces on posters . . . that’s cool to see,” Castagnola said.

“It’s a pretty big deal for CU in general and for us,” added Fusco. “We’re hoping we get a really good crowd . . . we watched (on Tuesday) while they were setting up the field at Folsom. We’re getting pretty excited for Saturday.”

From near dawn to well after dusk, the whole campus should be abuzz. ESPN’s College GameDay makes its first basketball stop in Boulder, previewing that night’s CU vs. No. 4 Arizona game at the Coors Events Center and giving the campus and community a rosy dose of national exposure. The CEC doors open at 6 a.m. for GameDay’s morning telecast, with tipoff Saturday night at 7:05 p.m.

By then, Elliott’s team will have introduced lacrosse to Buffs fans on campus. It’s a big enough deal for Ralphie to make a rare off-season appearance, leading Elliott and her young team onto Folsom Field. Admission and parking (lots 168, 169, 396) are free, with the first 500 fans receiving a lacrosse ball to commemorate the home debut of CU’s newest sport.

“Our student athletes been walking around telling everyone that we have a game on Feb. 22 in Folsom and I think that energy is exciting and the student response is exciting as well,” Elliott said. “It could be a fun-filled day.”

Could be, should be fun – but definitely a day of CU firsts.

Contact: B.G. Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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