February 6, 2013

Lambrecht: Why Not Denver? Pioneers Have Horses to Make a Run

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Denver coach Bill Tierney said sophomore goalie Ryan LaPlante, who replaced the injured Jamie Faus last year, will "probably" start on Saturday against Duke, although Faus is healthy after recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
© Charles Mauzy/US Lacrosse

When Denver opened its first two seasons under head coach Bill Tierney, the Pioneers played the victim each time in the same place. Denver began the 2010 and 2011 campaigns by getting smacked down in the Carrier Dome with six-goal losses to Syracuse.

"I did that [scheduling] on purpose. I knew we would probably get our brains beat in," Tierney recalled. "I wanted [us] to see what a big-time program looked like."

My, how the growing pains have subsided in the Rocky Mountains, where one of sport's more promising programs pushed itself into the front-and-center area of the Division I men's stage.

Tierney expects no such beat-down on Saturday, even though Denver is traveling for its opener to Durham, N.C., where Duke awaits with its impressive pedigree — six straight trips to the NCAA tournament semifinals and a national title in 2010.

The Pioneers have come a long way in a short span under Tierney, who enters his fourth season at Denver with a recent track record that indicates this could be the Year of the Pioneer.

Why not Denver? The Pioneers have made the NCAA tournament every year under Tierney. They stunned Johns Hopkins to reach Denver's first-ever final four in 2011. Last May in the quarterfinals, Denver went down swinging hard in a 10-9 battle with ECAC rival and eventual NCAA champion Loyola.

Why not Denver? The Pioneers are coming off a maddening, 9-7 season that forced them to swallow an astounding six, one-goal decisions, including all four of their overtime games. Two of those one-goal losses came against Loyola, which beat the Pioneers three times in what was a signature mark in the Greyhounds' first-ever march to an NCAA title.

Why not Denver? Sure, the Pioneers must absorb the loss of their remarkable one-two punch of attackmen Mark Matthews and Alex Demopoulos, who combined to score 67 goals and 111 points in 2012. But Tierney, who left Princeton in 2009 after leading the Tigers to six national championships during his two decades there, feels Denver approaching the sweet spot in its program development.

"When I came here, I felt that this place, as a university and a city and a lacrosse team, was ripe to be good," Tierney said. "I feel we are knocking on the door [to winning a title], but we also could fall off the face of the earth if we don't demand much more of ourselves as players, coaches, recruiters, you name it. Everybody is on thin ice in our game these days."

Denver sits at the epicenter of the sport's Western expansion, and Tierney's staff has assembled a version of America's team. The Denver roster features players from 18 different states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces. The Pioneers were already playing their high-scoring, push-the-ball style well before the new rules changes were introduced to quicken the pace of the game.

Tierney likes the blend of young and old in this year's edition. The heart of the team is the first-line midfield of seniors Cameron Flint and faceoff specialist Chase Carraro and junior Jeremy Noble, who combined for 55 goals and 34 assists. Senior Eric Law (42 points) and sophomore Canadian Wes Berg — who was outstanding last year (37 points) on the second midfield — shape an attack unit that figures to stretch defenses with their quickness in space.

Tierney is determined to play a ton of guys, possibly eight midfielders and five attackmen. That's because this squad might have more youthful talent than any Tierney has had out west.

Think of freshman midfielders such as Colin Woolford, a Syracuse transfer. Or freshman attackman Gordie Koerber, a dynamic product of Gilman in Baltimore and one of Lacrosse Magazine's Freshman 15 to Watch. He will start. Or freshman attackman Tom Moore, an excellent lefty out of West Islip, N.Y.

Denver needs to tighten up on defense to reverse that one-goal trend in its favor. The Pioneers surrendered 9.25 goals per game in 2012, and the close unit led by senior Kyle Hercher and sophomore Carson Cannon needs to be more consistent, as do defensive midfielders such as juniors Terry Ellis and Cole Nordstrom.

One factor in Denver's favor is its goaltending situation. Sophomore Ryan LaPlante, who progressed nicely after stepping in for the final 10 games following a season-ending Archilles tendon injury to junior Jamie Faus, will "probably" start at Duke, Tierney said Tuesday. But Faus, who played in the final four as a freshman, is right there.

The pieces are there for Denver, and so is hope. After all, when Loyola finally broke through the wall of Syracuse-Duke-Virginia-Hopkins and won a national championship, it was a triumph for non-bluebloods everywhere in the D-I landscape.

The way Tierney sees it, the Pioneers need one more strong dose of the most dangerous weapon in competitive sports besides talent. It's the unshakable belief that you will get it done, no matter what happens.

"At Princeton, when we were on that roll by winning three [titles] in a row from '96 through '98, the guys just knew were going to win. They stuck to their guns, no matter what," Tierney said. "Once you do win, you get that feeling. Look at the confidence that is exuding from Charles Street [at Loyola]. You never want to go through a terrible bout of one-goal losses. But we have to know we can get the job done."

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