Lara Campbell has vivid memories of her previous NCAA tournament experience, memories that are at once frustrating and awe-inspiring.
As a freshman in 2009, Campbell received the starting nod between the pipes as the University of Denver visited Portland for the first round of the NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament. As one of the premiere perennial powers in the nation, Campbell found the atmosphere at Portland both stunning and overwhelming.
The crowd was loud and enthusiastic. There were drums and chants throughout the match. And while it wasn't exactly a banner day for the Pioneers-DU exited the tournament with a 4-0 loss-it nonetheless was impressive to witness how things are done at the nation's elite soccer programs.
It was an atmosphere Campbell and the rest of the Pioneers hope to experience once again on Saturday.
DU will make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since that day in Portland three years ago, and it will be a historic occasion for coach Jeff Hooker's program. The Pioneers will host an NCAA Tournament match for the first time, as they take on in-state foe Colorado College in a first-round game Saturday at noon at CIBER Field at the University of Denver Soccer Stadium.
"I definitely didn't think it would take this long to get back into the NCAAs, knowing our talent on the team," Campbell said. "But freshman year, it was really cool. We won the conference and went to Portland, which was the top seed at the time. It was kind of intimidating, but Portland is such a great atmosphere to play at. They had a huge crowd and drums and everything.
"We had a pretty rough game against them, but the experience was great. To be back in the NCAAs now and to have that experience at home, it's an incredible feeling."
This will mark the Pioneers' eighth tournament appearance under Hooker, now in his 21st season at DU. Win or lose, Saturday will be a special occasion for Hooker, and not just because his program is hosting an NCAA tournament for the first time. Hooker's wife, and assistant coach, Katie is due to deliver the couple's first child in about two weeks. The only way she was going to be able to see the Pioneers compete in the NCAA tournament was if DU managed to land a home game in the first round.
"There was no way she was going to be able to travel," Hooker said. "That was one thing that we joked about five, six games ago. She selfishly fished a wish and said, 'The only way I can see this game is if we host.'
"This is one of those things that we joke around and say we want the alumni to come around and say, 'We didn't get to do that.' Now this group can come back and say they were the first to ever host. I think it's awesome for the seniors. Not only a good, talented pool of players, but they're just good people."
DU suffered a 1-0 loss against Colorado College in the team's season opener on Aug. 17. The Pioneers have been unable to equal the success they had in the Sun Belt Conference and, now, the Western Athletic Conference during the postseason, earning a first-round win only once with a 2006 win against Kentucky. If the Pioneers can buck that trend Saturday, they will travel to Palo Alto, Calif., to the home field of the region's top seed Stanford, to take on the winner between Stony Brook and No. 4 seed Maryland.
"We've worked all season to get here. We had chances my freshman and sophomore years to get here, and we just happened to not make it," said junior Kristen Hamilton, who earned the WAC Player of the Year award after compiling 13 goals and six assists.
"It's really exciting to be able to do this for the first time. Hopefully we can get a win out of it. We know (CC) is a good team and hopefully having played them will help us."
Follow Pat Rooney on Twitter: @prooney07