2016 Lacrosse Season in Review: The word of the day is parity

Photo courtesy AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Parity:
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.

4 thoughts on “2016 Lacrosse Season in Review: The word of the day is parity”

  1. I’ve preached all season long Nick that the DU lax team is built to win in
    2017, thus I totally agree with you that we may be better in 2017 then we were in 2015.. Too much parity now to win one year and expect to repeat. You can hope to give repeating a good shot, but don’t expect it. We lost too many good seniors to expect we would be as good in 16. It became obvious as the season wore on that if our offense was not clicking at 100% efficiency, we were quite beatable. Got to give us credit to making it to the final four as often as we have. Same props go to ND. and Maryland. In 2017, we have 4 1st team and 1 2nd team all-Americans returning. One is our all world FOGO Trevor Baptiste. Many players got tons of experience this season and will look like stars next year. These are top flight players, but sometimes it takes a little time to get comfortable enough to display your skills consistently. . Tierney is not recruiting chopped liver. Not to put pressure on the kid, but we have a recruit coming in next year named Ethan Walker. My sources tell me he’s Wesley Berg type good. (meaning he could have a Berg like freshman year)
    Look, congrats to UNC on a job well done. I’m extremely happy for them. Hell, they were on a 25 year drought. However, I am selfish as I imagine other DU fans are. I loved being the reigning National Champs for a year. Damn right I want that feeling again, and soon. Hopefully we have a little less then a year to wait!!

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  2. DU’s defense was not a top defense this year and other teams figured us out by year end. The big defensive X factor next year is the return of 6-6 redshirt junior Jake Nolan to the DU defense, after a knee injury forced him to miss this entire last season. I think he’s really good, and he should replace Pat Karole, and you’ve also got Matt Jones coming back, who got six starts this year when Karole was out for 6 weeks with a hand injury. These guys all return with with the best returning d-man in the country in first team all American Christian Burgdorf. Next year, Dylan Johnson also returns to DU as a sophomore. He got a lot of minutes for a freshman, and he has tremendous promise – he was just added to the US U19 team today and that world tourney experience this summer will really help his confidence.

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  3. I should have also mentioned that the coaches will probably spend a good deal of time preparing potential solutions for DU’s Short Stick defensive midfield issue, as Christian Thomas, Joe Bano and Chris Hampton (as well as Jack Pruitt) all graduate this weekend. I would think that Joe Reid figures to be a big part of the solution there next year, but perhaps Nick Philips and Jaden Franklin figure to be in the mix? Or perhaps some of the incoming freshmen midfield recruits might figure — guys like Danny Logan from Upper Arlington (Ohio) HS, Kyle Smith from New Canaan (Conn.) HS, Alec Barnes from Regis Jesuit (Colo.) HS, or
    Cameron Close, from McKinney (Texas) who prepped last year at Hill Academy in suburban Toronto.

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