April 30, 2010

Denver a Team of Destiny? It's in Their Hands

by Steven Russolillo | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Denver didn’t expect to find itself in contention for the ECAC men's lacrosse crown. Even head coach Bill Tierney admitted as much.

But two straight come-from-behind victories, a seven-game-winning streak and nine wins out of the last 10 later, the No. 16 Pioneers couldn’t be happier at how the stars have aligned. Denver controls its own destiny Sunday as it will host No. 6 Loyola on the grand stage of Invesco Field for the de facto conference championship, an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and the right to host the inaugural ECAC tournament in 2011.

“I’m so proud of these guys for perceiving and putting us in a position where I don’t think many people thought we’d be at this point,” Tierney said in Denver’s weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not sure I even thought we’d be here when we were 1-3.”

The Pioneers (10-4, 5-0 ECAC) didn’t expect to be competing for the league title this late in the season, especially after losing three of their first four games. But they’re not spending any time looking back, as the formula for success during Sunday’s game is simple: win and they’re in the NCAA tournament.

Achieving that goal, of course, isn’t quite as easy. The Pioneers take on a Loyola squad rocking its own six-game winning streak and also boasting an undefeated conference record. 

On paper, the Greyhounds (9-2, 6-0) appear to be the heavy favorite. They’re ranked higher and feature a deep squad, an excellent defense, one of the best goalies in the country in junior Jake Hagelin and are well-coached under fifth-year head coach Charley Toomey. “They’re probably the deepest and steadiest team we’ve played all year,” Tierney said.

“We’re not going to be able to make the mistakes we’ve been making,” Tierney added, noting Denver committed 18 turnovers in last weekend’s 9-8 victory against conference foe Fairfield. “If it’s that way this week, we’re in trouble.”

But the Pioneers are riding a wave of confidence after notching their second straight come-from-behind victory in as many weeks (and third overall) when they topped the Stags. Sophomore attackman Mark Matthews has been an offensive juggernaut for the Pioneers, as he registered the game-winner against the Stags as well as the game-tying goals at 5-5 and 8-8. He’s been a scoring machine this season, notching at least two goals in 10 of the Pioneers’ 14 games.

Matthews (28 , 7a), sophomore Alex Demopoulos (29g, 17a) and freshman Cameron Flint (20g, 2a) lead a young offense that has been learning on the fly for Tierney, the first-year head coach who migrated out west after 22 years at Princeton.

Tierney won six national championships and 14 Ivy League titles during his tenure at Princeton before embarking this past summer on a new journey in Denver. He’s taking a big picture look at Sunday’s game: Winning would be great for this year’s squad, but it could actually have a greater impact on the 2011 team.

“The winner of this game will host next year’s conference tournament, which has no affect on Dillon Roy and this year’s seniors. But it would be one of the most amazing gifts they could give to Denver lacrosse,” Tierney said. “If you host a tournament in your home place where the other three teams have to fly a couple thousand miles and have to play at altitude, that can only be an advantage for you.”

The Pioneers know they are underdogs heading into this weekend. But it’s a label they won’t back down from. And they couldn’t be happier.

“This season has been a big test on our character and I think we’ve handled it pretty well,” said senior captain Dillon Roy, one of the few elder statesmen who was also a member of the 2008 Denver squad that appeared in the NCAA tournament. He’s ranked in the top 20 in the nation this season in ground balls per game.

“I’m usually pretty cool, calm and collected and have no trouble getting any sleep,” Roy added. “But the last couple of nights I’ve just been really antsy and ready to play. That’s pretty rare, and it’s very exciting.”

ECAC News & Notes

Fairfield (8-4, 4-2) dropped out of the top 20 rankings this week after falling 9-8 to Denver last Saturday. The Stags squandered leads of 3-0 and 5-3 in the defeat. They travel to face No. 3 Maryland on Saturday and close out the season at Quinnipiac (7-5, 3-3) on May 8. The Bobcats are coming off a 13-8 victory against Sacred Heart. Junior Christian Haggerty registered five goals in the win. They will host Bryant this Saturday afternoon... Ohio State (7-6, 3-3) returned to the win column last Saturday, posting a 10-6 victory against Air Force. Inconsistency has plagued the Buckeyes, as they’ve been alternating between losses and wins since March 23. They will host Bellarmine (8-6, 2-4) on Saturday, a squad that was trounced by Quinnipiac 20-7... Both Air Force (1-11, 0-5) and Hobart (2-10, 0-6) will look to notch their first conference victories of the season when they face each other in upstate New York on Saturday.

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