Photo courtesy AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
noun | par·i·ty | \per-ə-tē\
1. the quality or state of being equal or equivalent
2. 2016 NCAA Lacrosse
The University of Denver’s first round exit of the NCAA Tournament at the hands of the Towson Tigers was shocking and stung a lot of fans of the Crimson & Gold. But the Pioneers were not the only victims of the incredible degree of parity in the sport. Over the course of the last few weeks of the season, three other top teams, Brown, Yale, and Notre Dame were upset. Brown lost to Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal while Yale lost to Navy and Notre Dame lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
Denver’s weren’t the hearts broken late in the season. This year’s late results indicate that the gap between the upper and lower tiers of collegiate lacrosse is rapidly closing. It isn’t that the upper tier is getting worse, it’s that the floor of NCAA lacrosse is rising and teams like Denver and Notre Dame couldn’t adapt quickly enough to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, coming into the season, much of the lacrosse world figured Memorial Day weekend would look a lot like 2015. Notre Dame was poised for another deep run, Maryland looked stronger than ever, Johns Hopkins is always a postseason threat, and even though they lost a deep and talented senior class that included NCAA Tournament most outstanding player Wes Berg, Denver certainly looked talented enough to repeat as champions.
After Denver topped Johns Hopkins in a sold-out exhibition game at the end of January, the excitement surrounding the 2016 squad was, in a word, palpable. Fans knew the Pios had talent, but the team tried to temper the optimism by attempting to embrace but distance themselves from the 2015 National Championship team.
Head coach Bill Tierney repeatedly explained that the 2016 team was working to create a new identity. The Pios wanted to build on the excitement and success of 2015 while forging a different brand of success in 2016.
Though that wasn’t exactly the most popular narrative, it was hard to blame the program for that logic. After all, the team lost players like Erik Adamson and Mike Riis on top of star goalie Ryan LaPlante and Tewaaraton finalist Wes Berg. No matter how the season played out, the 2016 squad was always going to be much different than the 2015 champions.
The 2016 season really didn’t feel underway until the much-anticipated DU-Notre Dame rivalry matchup in South Bend. There were a few close wins for the Pioneers against Air Force, Duke, and North Carolina throughout the first part of the season, but the Notre Dame game was what the fans wanted to see. It was widely seen as the Pios’ first true test against a national contender and the game certainly didn’t disappoint.
After Denver left South Bend with a thrilling 9-8 overtime victory thanks to Zach Miller’s heroics, it was officially ‘championship or bust’ at Evans and University.
Of course, just two weeks later, the hopes of an undefeated season were dashed by an upstart Penn State team in Dallas. More importantly, that game revealed some of the Pios’ most glaring flaws. This was the first time that DU was force-fed some of its own medicine. Penn State dominated the faceoff X and in turn, dominated the game.
While no team could replicate Penn State’s strategy against DU for the rest of the regular season as the Pios reeled off six straight wins to clinch their third straight BIG EAST regular season title, there were times when the Pioneers looked not only mortal, but beatable.
This was never more apparent than in the waning stages of the final regular season game of the year against Marquette. The Pioneers looked to have the game in hand entering the fourth quarter with a 12-6 lead, but something clicked on the Marquette bench and the Golden Eagles dominated the fourth quarter to pull within 3 by the time the final buzzer sounded and the Pios escaped with a 14-11 victory.
A week later, in the BIG EAST championship, Marquette built on their late success to upset Denver with a 10-9 victory. The Golden Eagles took Penn State’s strategy in Dallas a replicated it nearly to perfection. Marquette won 12 of 23 faceoffs and played incredible defense to stymie DU’s high-powered offense.
Towson exposed other issues for the Pioneers the next weekend. DU wasted Trevor Baptiste’s heroic 20 of 22 effort at the faceoff X by committing 14 turnovers over the course of the game. Many of DU’s offensive struggles could be attributed to Towson’s incredible defensive effort, but the Pioneers never looked comfortable on offense and as a result, they lost and any remaining hopes of repeating as National Champions were gone.
Looking back, the Pioneers’ lack of an offensive presence that could single-handedly take over a game (think Wes Berg in 2015) was sorely missed. Coming into the year, Cannizzaro looked to be the one to step up to fill the void left by Berg, but a lack of serious scoring depth allowed Marquette’s and Towson’s defenses to successfully double-team Cannizzaro. This forced DU to look elsewhere for scoring and though they were successful against Providence, it didn’t work when it mattered most.
However, given DU’s late-season struggles, there are plenty of reasons for optimism for the 2017 season. If you’re standing, sit down. If you’re already sitting down, good. Here’s why:
The 2017 Denver Pioneers lacrosse team might be better than the 2015 team.
Here’s why: The talented 2016 squad graduates just nine seniors. Of those nine players, only Jack Bobzien tallied more than 10 points on the season (41). Eight of 2016’s ten top scorers are coming back next year. On top of the returning scoring, Trevor Baptiste’s dominance at the X will be back as well. Another year under Tierney’s guidance could transform this group from streaky and talented to consistently dominant.
DU’s defense will feel the biggest effect from this year’s graduating class. Pat Karole and Jack Pruitt are both leaving and theirs are some large shoes the Pios need to fill. However, the unquestioned leader of the defense, Christian Burgdorf will be back in 2017 with another year of development under Tierney.
The Pioneers are by no means guaranteed to win it all in 2017, but given what DU will have to work with entering next year’s campaign, you can be sure that DU will be among the favorites to hoist the trophy in Boston next year.
2016 ended in disappointment and heartbreak at the hands of widespread parity. While the gap between the upper and lower tiers of college lacrosse will only continue to shrink, the Pioneers can learn from their failure to adjust to it this year and make 2017 an extremely successful season.