October 22, 2012

30 in 30: Where Do Personnel Losses Leave Denver?

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Denver's life after Mark Matthews starts with Eric Law, who played a supporting role to Matthews and Alex Demopolous. Law has been "a great role player, but has also been a quiet leader for us," coach Bill Tierney said.
© Charles Mauzy

More than three years have passed since Bill Tierney made his move west. In lacrosse time, three years might as well be an eternity.

Only four players who saw the field in the Pioneers' 2009 season-opener against Syracuse — Tierney's Denver coaching debut — remain on the roster. Of those four, only Cam Flint played significant minutes.

It will take another full season, but for most intents and purposes, an entire turnover from Tierney's first Denver team is complete. In 2011, they replaced twin brothers Charley and John Dickenson at the midfield, and found a new goalie. Last year, they replaced six starters on defense. And now, All-American attackman Mark Matthews and wingman Alex Demopolous have graduated.

"We're excited. It's kind of like we're starting anew again, if you can do something like that," Tierney said. "We're moving on in the post-Mark Matthews era.

"Plus, this fall more than any, it's almost like you've got 50 freshmen on your team with the new rules. The dynamics have definitely changed."

But Denver will still be Denver. They'll still have Canadian, box-infused offensive principles, and they'll still be the toe-dragging thorn in the traditionalist's side.

Where does all that leave the Pioneers?

Tierney got a glimpse at the first-ever Seatown Classic in Seattle on Oct. 13, when Denver played reigning two-time national runner-up Maryland, and Saturday in a scrimmage against Major League Lacrosse's Denver Outlaws.

Most obvious from those fall events, despite missing several players due to injury: The Pioneers are deeper than ever.

"That's somewhat comforting when you know how long the season can be, and you know how at times you could lose one key player that can ruin your season," Tierney said. "Having a system that utilizes everybody, both at the offensive and defensive end, with a deeper roster, along with two great goalies, we should withstand the hurricane, if it ever comes, and still be a really good team."

Otherwise, Denver will be forced to evolve and adapt, most visibly at attack.

"Will we be the same without Mark? Absolutely not. It's a whole different way of doing things," Tierney said. "When you lose a guy like Mark Matthews, you know you're losing 3-point-something goals per game, and all the dynamic plays he could make. We're certainly faster, smaller, a little bit more multi-faceted.

"And we've certainly got the number of guys who can help us live after Mark."

Life after Matthews starts with Eric Law (26 goals, 16 assists), whom Tierney called "a hidden gem" for his ability to play alongside Matthews and Demopolous the last two years "without stealing their thunder."

"Eric is a special player," Tierney said. "He's been a great role player, but has also been a quiet leader for us. Now he's a senior. He's the vocal leader. He's everything that we've wanted him to be, and more."

Law, who transferred back home from Division III Salisbury, is a cagey quarterback now tasked with directing Denver's multi-dimensional offense under coordinator Matt Brown.

"We're just not sure yet who's going to play attack, but we know it's going to be Eric Law's show back there," Tierney said. "The guys around him are going to have to be able to move quickly."

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Senior Colin Scott, one of the four players who saw time against Syracuse in 2009, started at attack in the Seatown Classic. He totaled 25 points as a freshman but missed time each of the past two seasons with a knee injury, and could have the inside track for a starting spot.

Canadian U-19 team member Wes Berg (26 goals, 11 assists), a natural midfielder who ran mostly on the second line last year, also started on attack against Maryland and will play no matter where he lines up.

"Wes got to a point last year where he was so confident, and at times so dominant, that we feel like we need to up the ante with him," Tierney said. "There's no doubt about it. Our success will be greater if Wes touches the ball more."

Freshman Gordie Koerber, one of Lacrosse Magazine's Freshman 15: College Rookies to Watch, scored a pair of goals against Maryland. He's a big, strong lefty who's crafty around the cage. Fellow first-year player Tom Moore, of West Islip (N.Y.) High, and could be diaper dandy too.

While there's uncertainty on the front lines, there's clarity at the midfield, with Flint and Jeremy Noble (25 goals, 21 assists), along with faceoff man Chase Carraro (14 goals, 6 assists), all returning for their third season together.

"We're certainly not going to forget that we've got a few other very talented Canadian guys," Tierney said. "As we know, those guys can put the ball in the back of the net."

Noble, the headliner, is one of the nation's top scorers out of the midfield. (Do you remember his four-goal, six-assist stat-stuffing display against North Carolina in the NCAA tournament last year? Vote for it as Lacrosse Magazine's "Best of Lacrosse 2012" individual performance.)

Noble and Flint showed they can hold their own on the defensive end last year, which Tierney said was important given the new rules push toward full-field midfielders.

(For more of Tierney's take on the new rules, read the footnote below.)

But Noble, who tore his hamstring this summer playing box lacrosse, has missed the fall. Sophomore Eric Adamson, a Californian listed as an attackman on the roster, has run with the first-midfield in his place. Adamson was Denver's fifth attackman last year.

Among the other notable injuries keeping players out: Junior attackman Harrison Archer had wrist surgery, as did sophomore pole Mike Riis. Sophomore defenseman Drew Babb had hip surgery. Incoming freshman defenseman Jordan Cunningham, from The Lovett School (Ga.), had knee surgery in February and is being kept out as a precaution. And junior goalie Jamie Faus, who tore his Achilles tendon last spring, is still recovering and hasn't practiced.

"Jamie could see some shots if we wanted him to. But I know him," Tierney said. "We'd have to chain him up. He's one of those guys — the minute he gets back in that crease, he's going to want to be the old Jamie running around, diving across the crease and all that stuff. We just need him to settle in."

Faus had surgery to repair the Achilles in March, and he was given a six- to nine-month recovery timetable. December marks nine months, which assuming he has no setbacks, should allow Faus to be ready for January when practices resume.

Faus' injury and return creates an interesting dynamic, and a situation that seems from a distance like it would need to be handled delicately. Faus, Lacrosse Magazine's cover subject in February's season preview issue, started as a freshman in front of six senior defensemen and posted a .557 save percentage.

But in the sixth game of last season Faus tore his Achilles against Notre Dame, and freshman Ryan LaPlante finished the season, saving 53.5 percent of shots he faced. LaPlante was expected to redshirt.

Sophomore Ryan LaPlante has been Denver's starting goalie through the fall as Jamie Faus continues to recover from a torn Achilles suffered last spring. "You can't predict how this is going to happen," Tierney said of who will start this year.
© Charles Mauzy

Who gets the starting nod come spring? Time will tell.

"You can't predict how this is going to happen," Tierney said. "Certainly, everybody tells you it's like naming your starting quarterback, and you hear that. He should know. The team should know. Everybody in the world should know. Honestly, I don't buy that. If a guy is the second-best attackman, he plays. If he's the second-best midfielder, he plays. If he's the second-best defenseman, he plays. If he's the second-best goalie, he sits on the bench all year? I'm not sure I buy into that. We've got two guys who are proven, who are great kids, and who have a great relationship. We just have to see what transpires with Jamie's injury, see how he comes back. If Jamie does come back full-tilt, then it's not the worst problem on earth for a coach, that's for sure.

"I've been around goalies a long time who have been successful, and one of the things you know about them is that it's a long season. What people forget is that you play five days a week of practice for one two-hour game. They can see upwards 300 shots before the game even comes. We've learned some good lessons on how to get these guys there, for Saturday, which is most important. To have two of them you know are ready to play on any given Saturday, you can juggle their drills, juggle their play in practice, and keep them both fresh."

Tierney, a veteran coach of 28 years, has been here before. He said the situation with Faus and LaPlante most reminds him of 2005 at Princeton, when Alex Hewit replaced Dave Law midway through the year, less than a year after Law helped lead the Tigers to the final four.

But there were other instances. In 1996, Tierney famously inserted seldom-used Pancho Gutstein into the fourth quarter of Princeton's NCAA semifinal against Syracuse when the score was tied 9-9. Gutstein made four saves and the Tigers won 11-9, then the next won the national championship, and Gutstein was named to the all-tournament team. Then in 1998, Tierney inserted a freshman, his son Trevor who's now the goalie coach at Denver, into the NCAA quarterfinal game against Duke for senior Corey Popham. A week later, Popham was named the tournament's most outstanding player after Princeton won it all.

"You just continue to move forward with goalies, and you just hope you can keep them happy enough but on edge enough to be able to respond at a moment's notice," Tierney said. "Both of these kids — Jamie and Ryan — are ready, willing and able to do that.

"If you win, nobody minds. I don't know one kid I've ever coached who would trade an opportunity to win a championship for an All-American certificate. They're both that kind of guy. So I'm not worried."

LaPlante scored an end-to-end goal against Maryland in the Seatown Classic, sending the Seattle fans into a frenzy. It was a highlight-quality play at one fall event. Exciting, certainly, but won't much matter in the spring.

"As we warned the team, at the end of the day I've seen a lot of fall national championship teams not make the NCAA tournament when it counts," Tierney said. "I don't think either team took this thing too seriously. You've got to be very, very careful to take out of these events what you can, but also look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Hey, this is us.'"

When Tierney looked, he saw a new Denver. It was an indication of a Hall of Fame coach's revitalization and adaptation.

Tierney on Rules Changes

"The game needed a jump-start. The battery had run dead a little bit. The no horns, the fast restarts, the bigger substitution boxes, have recharged the batteries and more. When I think of being in the national spotlight, with the ever-growing popularity of the game, the one main spotlight for all of us is final four weekend. When we're on national TV this year, we want Quint Kessenich touting how great the game has become, and how fast it is, and truly back to being the fastest game on two feet. That's how the word gets spread. We all love the game, and if it didn't get changed, we all would've still loved it. But to have this go, go, go attitude about you, and still the ability to coach, and get set up on offense, and play solid team defense, is still all part of it.

The other thing that's been really phenomenal is the sticks. To me, it has just made it a cleaner game. You're seeing fewer times where a kid will dodge through four people and come out with the ball, and you know darn well he had an illegal stick and you couldn't have gotten it out with a sledgehammer. It's fun.

The other things will slowly take shape, as coaches watch each other and copy each other and find out the best practices with things like the 30-second shot clock and the faceoff mechanics. Right now, that combination of fast restarts, no horns and the bigger boxes, they've made the game much better in one fell swoop.

It's forcing coaches to do some thinking. It's forced us to think outside our comfort zone a little bit. Lacrosse coaching, everybody has neat ideas, but by the time you put four or five years together everybody is kind of doing the same stuff. But this game now is going to allow you to recruit kids for the game. It's going to be quicker game, and maybe even a simpler game. But certainly one that the fans are going to love. That's for sure.

These fans in Seattle, they were great. They were on their feet. They were cheering great plays made by both teams. That's one of the advantages of not having a home team bias. It made it fun. There were 3,600 people. They were just going nuts every time there was a nice goal, or a clean hit, or a good save. It really uplifted you, knowing that these rules are going to make this game so much better."

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