March 4, 2014

Tuesdays with Corey: Denver Seeks to Regroup

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Denver freshman attackman Zach Miller showed great promise, scoring three goals, in the Pioneers 12-10 loss to Penn. (Andy Lewis) 

In the dog-eat-dog world of the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse elite, losses are tough to deal with. A single defeat can change the entire complexion of a season, and certainly alter the tone of a week's preparation compared to the seven days before.

An expanded 18-team NCAA tournament field awaits come May, but the extra two spots available from past years don't really provide much comfort or breathing room.

Not with the ACC looking very deserving of sending all six teams to the big show at this moment. Assuming it does — which could be negated if one or more teams doesn't finish above .500, the minimum qualification of the NCAA tournament for non-automatic qualifying teams — that would give the ACC five tournament at-large teams, leaving only three at-large spots up for grabs, with 10 AQ slots gobbled up by conference champions.

So when there is an upset — like Penn's 12-10 comeback win over previously fourth-ranked Denver on Saturday — perspective quickly changes for both teams. For the winner, good times in the post-game locker room. The favorite victory dance song. For the loser, it's time to go reassess and go to work.

The wheels were already churning for Pioneers coach Bill Tierney in the moments after his team's loss Saturday afternoon at old-timey Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Standing in front of a concrete wall beneath the stands and being asked about the game, he said, "We got to pull this together," and "hope we can steal a big one back from someone else."

He was talking relative to the larger season arc and the ever-present NCAA tournament resume. Signature wins against top-5 and top-10 teams are part of the equation, as are what could be determined as bad losses when results from the season are compared by the NCAA tournament selection committee two months from now, for seeding or selection purposes.

"It's a tough loss, because you need to get all these," Tierney said. "But [we] got a lot of games coming up... We'll see what we're made of."

Like most everything, there was good news and bad news.

The good news was that when Denver played they way it is capable, it looked downright unstoppable, even against the returning top-ranked defense in the nation. The attack of Wesley Berg, Hartford transfer Jack Bobzien and freshman Zach Miller worked together to create high-percentage scoring chances, with Bobzien and Miller both at times working behind the goal line, or floating above and below and back. It was fun to watch.

"That's what we do," Tierney said. "We're a team that likes to create offense from a lot of different angles and keep everybody on the move. We always say, 'We don't care who scores, as long as we do.'"

Miller looked every bit as good as advertised, as one of Lacrosse Magazine's Freshman 15 this season. Wearing a braided ponytail like that of the Iroquois' Thompson brothers, Miller, a member of the 2012 Iroquois under-19 team, glided around the offensive zone, finding open space and making things look generally effortless. Of course, they are not.

"Zack made a couple of individual plays that we haven't seen," Tierney said. "We got to take advantage of that kind of skill set."

The Pioneers defense was physical — arguably too much at times, given the four first-half penalties called on the unit — and 6-foot-4, 205-pound freshman Christian Burgdorf is a beast who figures to present problems for opposing attackmen for years to come. Another freshman, Tyler Pace — go figure, yet another Canadian — started on the first midfield alongside north-of-the-border native Jeremy Noble and Eric Adamson.

Then, of course, there is the goaltending situation. Ryan LaPlante started his third straight game and Faus entered in the second half, after using the opposite rotation up until the Duke loss in the second game of the season. Denver's goalie platoon — an eventual result of Faus tearing his Achilles' in his true sophomore year and a planned redshirt being taken off the then-freshman LaPlante — will continue. Both have showed they are capable of playing big-time roles.

The bad news was Denver squandered away what could have been a good win. The Pioneers were up 5-1 at the end of the first quarter, before several unforced turnovers and being multiple men down in the second quarter changed the tide of the contest.

"The second quarter we just lost our focus. When you go three men down, it's hard," Tierney said. "Ryan made some saves. We get the ball even, but it still really hard to get it organized again ... We're two men up and we don't run the play that [assistant] coach [Matt] Brown calls. We got out of sorts there."

"We got to pull this together. ... We'll see what we're made of."

— Denver coach Bill Tierney

Despite all of that, Denver held an 8-6 lead early in the third quarter when Miller scored his third goal 52 seconds after halftime. Without the Pioneers' regular faceoff man Chris Hampton, sophomore Joe Bano, in his first career start, had been getting the better of Penn's well-regarded faceoff man Danny Feeney early. Bano finished 14-for-23. But when they game got tight, Denver couldn't stop the general rush of momentum Penn built up from the first quarter on.

Trailing 11-10 with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter, a simple ball exchange behind the Penn goal went awry, giving the Quakers the ball. Penn scored to make it 12-10 — the final margin — on its next settled possession.

Shooting was an issue as well. Denver shot just over 50 percent as a team and Penn won possessions on five shot backups. Just two goals came from the midfield.

Then to complicate matters, Feeney won four of six fourth-quarter faceoffs, as Penn took its first lead of the game late.

"This has been one of the M.O.'s of our team right now," Tierney said. "When we need them to be most calm, we get frenetic, and that's not our style."

Denver will need to regroup quickly. They travel to California to play Notre Dame on Saturday, then have a quick turnaround with a rare Monday night game against Penn State back home. Five days later, Ohio State, a team eager to get a big win of its own, comes to town. After all of that, Big East play finally will start March 22 against Rutgers, the first of six straight conference games.

The Pioneers are still the Big East favorite in their first year in the conference, but that's not the target they have their far sights set on, not after two final four appearances in the last three seasons. The road back could start now.

What in the world of goalies is going on?

Freshman Shane Doss replaced starter Conor Kelly in the first quarter of Notre Dame's eventual 11-10 win over North Carolina. (Peyton Williams)

Five of the top teams in the country — Duke, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Denver and Princeton — either are managing goalie platoons, have made wholesale changes (as in Luke Aaron stepping in for Kyle Turri at Duke) or a simple change for a game (freshman Shane Doss replacing junior starter Conor Kelly in the first quarter of Notre Dame's game with North Carolina).

Denver looks as if it has settled on LaPlante as the starter, with Faus coming in for the second half. Syracuse had been using backup Bobby Wardwell in the second half, and he even relieved starter Dom Lamolinara in the first half of the Maryland game two weeks ago, but Lamolinara played all but 27 seconds Saturday night against Virginia.

Syracuse coach John Desko said Lamolinara had been playing well (six first-half saves) and he didn't want to bring Wardwell off the bench for the second half in a man-down situation.

"We had that penalty at the end of the second quarter ... It would have been pretty difficult to put Bob in such a hot game," Desko told reporters in Charlottesville. "His first time out there he [would] be man down. I decided to stay with Dom. I thought he had been playing pretty well. ... To put Bobby in that situation, who knows, it takes maybe two or three shots to get warmed up and that's just too much to ask."

Meanwhile, Virginia, had major goalie questions heading into the season. Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia had said he was ready to replace freshman Matt Barrett with Rhody Heller if Barrett got off to a bad start in the Drexel game, the Cavaliers' third of the season, but Barrett delivered with 16 saves that day. He followed with 10 each against Rutgers and Mt. St. Mary's, but only five against Syracuse.

Three Stars

Niko Amato, Maryland, Sr. G
Maryland has no goalie issues. Amato made 17 saves as the Terps beat Duke 10-6 and took over the nation's top ranking in the process — across the board. There hasn't been much Amato hasn't seen at this point. Remember he started as a freshman and sophomore in Maryland's NCAA title game appearance years.

Alex Kinnealey, Colgate, Jr. FO
Off the radar here, but Kinnealey ranks third nationally in faceoff win percentage (70.1 percent), including an 8-for-15 effort against Bryant's prolific faceoff man, Kevin Massa, in the season opener. Kinnealey was 12-for-19 in a 9-8 win over Bucknell on Saturday.

Miles Thompson, Albany, Sr. A

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