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Pioneers to duel soccer rival New Mexico on home pitch

Kellan Christensen will take the field against rival New Mexico on Friday. Rich Clarkson and Associates

It was a mere inch — perhaps even just a fraction of an inch — that haunted Kellan Christensen for years.

As Christensen watched what would become the penultimate shot of the DU men’s soccer team’s 2007 season sail through the air, the stakes became evident. A true strike would give the Pioneers the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) crown and secure the program’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 1970. It would allow Christensen and his older brother — former Pioneer standout Kyle Christensen (BSBA ’09) — to share at least one more game together at DU. And, a goal would give DU a victory over its rival team from the University of New Mexico, a reward that is as fulfilling as it gets for anyone wearing a Pioneers jersey.

Unfortunately, Christensen’s shot late in the second overtime clanged off the crossbar. In a scene typical of what is becoming one of the greatest rivalries in collegiate men’s soccer west of the Mississippi River, New Mexico celebrated on DU’s turf as if the scoreless draw had been a victory. Christensen fell to the pitch and stared at the crossbar in disbelief for at least 10 minutes.

“My brother laid it off for me and I hit the crossbar,” says Christensen, whose subsequent two-year Mormon mission gave him plenty of time to stew over the misfire. “It stung. We were inches away from going to the NCAA Tournament. The whole time I was gone it was always, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it was just one inch.’ Denver versus New Mexico is the biggest rivalry in the conference for sure. My whole time here, and even before that when I’d come see my brother and before the new stadium, there was always a big crowd for this game. You always look forward to it.”

Now back on campus for his last year with the men’s soccer team, Christensen and the rest of the Pioneers will take the field in the first game of the 2011 edition of the rivalry in an MPSF game at 7:45 p.m. Oct. 7 at DU’s CIBER Field. The match follows women’s soccer Sun Belt Conference showdown against South Alabama.

College Soccer News recently named DU-New Mexico the 13th best men’s soccer rivalry in the nation. And like all good sports rivalries, the series has been close. New Mexico has a record of 16-13-3 against the Pioneers. In 15 of the past 17 meetings, the matches have been determined by one goal or ended in a tie. Last year, the home game with the Lobos was the most well attended of the Pioneers’ season.

“This is definitely one of those games that alumni, parents and people close to the program circle on their calendars,” says Bobby Muuss, DU men’s soccer head coach. “There is always a lot of excitement and support at the games against New Mexico, and the crowds continue to grow and get better every season.”

Joe Willis’ (BSBA ’10) first impression of the DU-New Mexico rivalry left an indelible mark. Willis — currently the backup goalkeeper with Major League Soccer’s D.C. United — was a freshman backup in 2006 when the Pioneers traveled to New Mexico and suffered a 3-0 shellacking in the season finale. As Willis walked off the field, the crestfallen expressions consuming the faces of his older teammates became a continued source of inspiration.

“Seeing the seniors on that day, it was a huge motivation for years,” Willis says. “Starting off in college, you always think that you have four years and more chances to win games like that. Before you know it, you’re a senior and you have to make the most of each game. Every time we played New Mexico, it usually was the biggest game of the season. They were always the best team in the conference, and to be able to take that away from them (in 2008) was really big for the program.”

Of course, these grim memories shared by Christensen and Willis are so stark largely due to the gravity of the rivalry for DU’s players. Yet there have been plenty of pleasant memories against New Mexico as well, such as Colin Jones’ rebound header that gave the Pioneers a 1-0 win at home in 2008. DU’s conference championship that season helped bridge the gap between the programs, and with two NCAA Tournament berths in the past three seasons, the Pioneers have blossomed into a perennial challenger to New Mexico’s longstanding status as the top Division I program in the Rocky Mountain region.

As usual, the Pioneers expect to experience a raucous atmosphere inside a packed CIBER Field on Friday.

“You get to play them twice a season, and then geographically, it’s one of our closer Division I opponents,” says Muuss, whose club will take a 2-4-3 mark into Friday’s showdown. “We’ll actually play New Mexico in the spring as well, which makes it even a little more fierce. New Mexico has built a great program and has been to a Final Four. Whenever you are in conference and you have an opportunity to play a national power, or someone in the national spotlight, you give your best. New Mexico gets the best from everybody. I think from the University of Denver, since we have been so close for so long, it just intensifies it. A result here on Friday will propel these guys to think they can beat anybody.”

Tickets for Denver soccer cost $5 for general admission and $8 for reserved chairbacks. DU student tickets are free with a Pioneer Card. Visit the DU Pioneers website for tickets.

This Week’s Pioneer Home Schedule:

Date Sport Opponent Date Time
Oct. 7 Soccer (W) South Alabama CIBER Field 6 p.m. MT
Oct. 7 Hockey U.S. Under-18 (exh.) Magness Arena 7:37 p.m. MT
Oct. 7 Soccer (M) New Mexico CIBER Field 7:45 p.m. MT
Oct. 9 Soccer (W) Troy CIBER Field 12 p.m. MT
Oct. 9 Soccer (M) UNLV CIBER Field 2 p.m. MT




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