Power Rankings: DU's road to success

Kristen Hamilton was named player of the year in the Sun Belt Conference two years ago and in the Western Athletic Conference last year. This year she's the favorite in Denver's latest new home, the Summit League. Courtesy of University of Denver

During more than two decades as women's soccer coach at the University of Denver, Jeff Hooker has watched the landscape grow less hospitable to programs beyond the mainstream -- programs like his Pioneers, who operate without what he calls the "funny money" available in athletic departments that have big-time football programs.

It grows ever more difficult to convince players that a smaller program, even one in a big city, is right for them.

He did have another sales pitch available the past few years, although not one of his own choosing.

Come to Denver and see the world. Or at least large parts of America.

Denver opens Summit League play this weekend with a trip to Fort Wayne, Ind., to play IPFW. It marks the debut appearance in Indiana's second-largest city for the Pioneers. They will also travel to Omaha and Vermillion, S.D., for league games this season, their first trip to the former city since 1993 and their first ever to the latter.

The destinations are new, but the theme isn't. By the end of the fall, Denver will have played 12 conference road games in 10 states over three seasons. The soccer team's nomadic existence is the result of the school's similarly shifting status in conference realignment. The Pioneers played the 2011 season in the Sun Belt Conference (Welcome to Monroe, La.!), the 2012 season in the Western Athletic Conference (Hello, Moscow, Idaho!) and now reside in the Summit League.

From Alabama to Washington and Florida to Idaho, all in the name of conference competition.

"It's pretty wild," senior Kristen Hamilton said. "It's a pretty cool experience because you get to go to a lot of different states. You get to see a lot of different facilities, and you kind of see how everyone else is living out there in the college world. It's hard sometimes -- definitely it's hard. But I think I kind of like it, in the aspect that you get to see all the other states."

It helps if you win games, of course, and Denver does a lot of that no matter the setting.

The Pioneers fall just short of this week's power rankings proper, but they still rank among the top 15 teams in this subjective appraisal and are No. 16 in the NSCAA Top 25. More important, they enter conference play ranked No. 10 in RPI. That number puts them in good position to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid, if they need it, and host at least a first-round game. They did both a season ago in a postseason run that took them to the Sweet 16 for the first time.

Coaches rarely admit to speaking to players about anything other than the next game on the schedule, but Hooker acknowledged he made a point to talk about building an at-large profile both last season and this season. The next Summit team in the RPI is IUPUI at No. 199, so that meant getting work done before conference play. Stumbles two weeks ago, a loss at Nebraska and a draw at TCU, put that in jeopardy, but Denver rebounded with a victory at BYU this past week. Combined with wins against Colorado, Colorado College and UC Irvine, it's a postseason-caliber résumé.

Hamilton is a big reason for the success, even if she's listed at just 5-foot-3. A Denver-area native whose game developed late in high school, she has an opportunity to do something that, if not unprecedented, certainly ranks among the rarer feats in college sports. The best player on far and away the best team in the Summit, she could add a third consecutive conference player of the year award, in a third league.

"Some people just have the natural talent and can kind of cruise around in training and not give it all, but what she does is she's really been an example," Hooker said. "Not only has she been the most productive player, but she's been the hardest-working player in practices and games."

It was Hamilton's hat trick on the road against Portland a season ago that fully announced the Pioneers as a team with national aspirations. Those aspirations came with them to yet another new home.

"We are a smaller school, and we're not a very well-known school," Hamilton said. "To have people look at us and go, 'I don't know how they're up here,' I think that it makes it more exciting. It makes it more fun. Every game you want to go out and prove yourself even more because people think that you're just some little school that got lucky to get here."

It took a lot of work to get here. Wherever here happens to be this week.

Now on to this week's rankings.

1. Virginia (11-0-0, last week's ranking: 1)

Well, then. The meat of Virginia's ACC schedule is still to come in a 22-day stretch this month that features trips to North Carolina and Wake Forest and home games against Florida State, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. But this past weekend's trip to Duke and the home game against Maryland looked like potential trap games. A letdown looked even more likely when the Cavaliers trailed Duke by two goals at halftime in Durham. But three second-half goals, including two in the first four minutes after the break, gave the visitors a 3-2 win. A workmanlike 1-0 win against Maryland followed, and the perfect season rolls on. Morgan Brian will miss the Oct. 20 game against North Carolina to join the national team, as will Tar Heels star Crystal Dunn.

2. UCLA (9-1-0, last week's ranking: 2)

One week of Pac-12 play down, one to go until the trip to Stanford on Oct. 10. Playing without defensive stalwart Abby Dahlkemper because of a red card in the previous game, the Bruins conceded a goal for the first time in four games, but generally had their way in a 2-1 win at Arizona. After managing just six shots and ceding almost all possession to North Carolina in its lone loss, UCLA outshot its next five opponents by a combined 52 shots. Rosie White also returned to the lineup after missing time to play with New Zealand.

3. Stanford (8-0-1, last week's ranking: 3)

Playing its first game since classes started, Stanford rode goals from the familiar combination of Taylor Uhl and Courtney Verloo to a 2-0 win at Colorado to open Pac-12 play. That's the last time the Cardinal will leave home until a swing through Oregon over October's final weekend. Uhl (9) and Verloo (6) have combined for 15 of the team's 24 goals this season. That's the greatest percentage for any top two scorers among teams in the top 10, slightly ahead of North Carolina's Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai and Wake Forest's Katie Stengel and Riley Ridgik.

4. Notre Dame (9-1-0, last week's ranking: 4)

So far, so good in the ACC. Notre Dame piled up eight goals in wins against Maryland (5-0) and Pittsburgh (3-0) to improve to 5-0-0 in its new conference. The eight goals were thanks in large part to Cari Roccaro, who followed a hat trick against the Terrapins with a goal and two assists against the Panthers. That's a good return on investment for coach Randy Waldrum, who moved Roccaro from a holding midfield position to forward, where she had played in the past for the Irish. With Katie Stengel and Morgan Brian among the defensive challenges awaiting in the next two weeks, it will be interesting to see where the ever-versatile Roccaro lines up.

5. North Carolina (9-2-0, last week's ranking: 6)

A 1-0 win at Pittsburgh wasn't pretty. The Tar Heels piled up shots without creating many legitimate scoring chances, but they got the win and got to go home after spending essentially a week on the road (and busing 500 miles from Tallahassee to Miami after a schedule change to accommodate television left them unable to change plane tickets). The good news is Anson Dorrance hopes to have Alexa Newfield and Amber Munerlyn back from injury in the next week or two. Sunday's home game against Maryland (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET) is the lone date this week.

6. Penn State (9-1-1, last week's ranking: 7)

That 5-1 loss at Virginia feels like it was even longer ago than late August. Granted, Penn State doesn't face a lot of top-10 competition in the Big Ten, but Erica Walsh's team continues to pile up goals at an impressive rate. The most recent results were a 6-1 win against Purdue and a 4-1 victory over Indiana. This week will be interesting to track. Penn State is 3-1-0 on the road, but the loss in Charlottesville was ugly and even the wins at Oklahoma State and Tulsa produced nervous moments. A road trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota is no small task.

7. Florida State (9-0-3, last week's ranking: 5)

Clemson is a much-improved version of the program that won just two conference games between 2008 and 2012, but Florida State's 1-1 draw on the road in South Carolina was still an eyebrow raiser. The Seminoles definitely had the better of possession, especially as they chased an equalizer in the second half, but they didn't play the Tigers off the pitch by any stretch of the imagination. At some point the talent and possession should turn into goals, and it's hard to pick too much at an unbeaten record, but we are in October now.

8. Portland (8-1-1, last week's ranking: 9)

Notre Dame's Roccaro wasn't the only familiar face who made her coach look wise for a lineup tweak. Playing up top for the first time this season after spending earlier games in the back line, Portland's Amanda Frisbie scored two goals in a 4-2 win against Wyoming. The Pilots' leading scorer a season ago with 12 goals and nine assists, she returned to center back for the weekend finale at Washington but still scored a goal in a 3-0 win against the Interstate 5 rival. Conference play begins with a trip to new league member Pacific.

9. Santa Clara (6-3-1, last week's ranking: NR)

Kansas was exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road opponent that could have made Santa Clara pay for any emotional hangover coming out of the previous week's Stanford heartbreaker. Instead the Broncos managed a 3-2 result against the Jayhawks and routed Cal Poly 4-0 to give coach Jerry Smith his 400th career win. Sofia Huerta, Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough can hold their own on any field, and a team that played as if out of its depth in early losses against North Carolina and Virginia is back in the national mix.

10. Wake Forest (8-2-1, last week's ranking: 8)

The Demon Deacons just hold on after a 1-0 loss at Boston College and a 1-0 win at Syracuse. Wake Forest forced just three saves out of two teams used to facing far more heat. The next two weeks will reveal a lot about this team, and go a long way toward determining whether it has any chance to host beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament. After a visit to Notre Dame this week, a home game against Virginia and a trip to Virginia Tech await in the following two games. It's not now or never, but now would be helpful.

Next five: West Virginia, Georgetown, Denver, Florida, Virginia Tech

Ten games to watch this week (rankings from NSCAA Top 25)

• Washington State at No. 3 UCLA
No. 13 Wake Forest at No. 4 Notre Dame
Maryland at No. 6 North Carolina
No. 7 Penn State at No. 18 Wisconsin
Texas at No. 15 West Virginia
No. 19 South Carolina at No. 8 Florida
No. 21 Michigan at No. 23 Nebraska
No. 22 BYU at No. 20 Baylor
No. 25 Mississippi at Georgia
St. John's at Marquette