Photo courtesy DU Athletics
It’s arrived at last. Lacrosse season in the Rocky Mountains is back. The Lacrosse Capital of the West is about to come alive once again as the 2017 University of Denver Pioneers Men’s Lacrosse program opens their season at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium this weekend against in-state rival Air Force.
After last season ended in heartbreaking fashion at home against Towson in the NCAA Tournament, the Pioneers are looking to match their fellow Denverites, the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse, in winning a second championship in three seasons.
To achieve that goal, the Pioneers are going to have to go through one of their toughest schedules in program history. Duke, Notre Dame, and defending national champion North Carolina all make trips to the Mile High City this spring before the Pios even enter Big East play. On top of that perennial top-ten gauntlet, Air Force, Denver’s opponent this weekend, upset Duke last weekend. There’s also a sneaky road trip to Towson at the end of March that will be Denver’s final nonconference test of the season.
If Denver is going to make a run to the national title again this year, the regular season will prepare them well for the postseason…and they won’t have to deal with the nonsensical “weak schedule” argument that’s plagued them for the past few years.
For our previews, we’ve traditionally looked at the subject team and previewed them position by position, but this year, for this team, that didn’t seem to make sense. This team has so much depth that every position is going to be a strength for the Pios. So instead, we’re going to look at the main storylines coming into this season and analyze how they might play out this year.
So, without further ado:
Zach Miller is gone…what now?
In case you live under a rock, it was announced last month that star midfielder/attack Zach Miller abruptly left the program leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the field for DU. Before I continue here, teams don’t just replace players like Miller. He was a difference-maker, a once-in-a-generation type talent. He could do it all and, more importantly, he had ice in his veins against Notre Dame, notching the game-winner in two key regular season overtime games against the Fighting Irish.
Denver is going to miss him, but it’s not like the Pios aren’t built to withstand a loss like this. They’re going to have to play the midfield “by committee” to an extent this year as players like senior Tyler Pace, sophomore Colton Jackson, and freshman Danny Logan will need to step up and produce on both ends of the field.
“We feel that we have a great group of guys,” DU head coach Bill Tierney told LetsGoDU. “We certainly have plenty of depth to make two or three [players] fill in [Miller’s] spot.”
Of course, Miller’s loss will be felt on the offensive end of the field. He was able to make something out of nothing so many times. Pace is a talented player and he showed flashes of brilliance last year, but it’s extremely likely that the attack will have to make up for a bulk of Miller’s offensive production…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Denver’s depth up front is better than it’s been in years. Remember that National Championship-winning attack that featured Wes Berg and Connor Cannizzaro two years ago? This year’s depth up front might be better. Featuring the likes of Cannizzaro, Connor Donahue, Colton McCaffrey, and freshman wunderkind Ethan Walker, scoring won’t exactly be at a premium for DU this year.
“We don’t need to put any pressure on [Walker] because we have a bunch of older guys like Connor [Cannizzaro] that people are going to have to pay attention to as well,” Tierney explained.
Miller’s loss will be felt on and off the field for Denver. Tierney took immense pride in coaching and mentoring him. But the season must go on without him and Denver is very well prepared to do so successfully.
“This program is built around a group of young men that all have a common goal,” Tierney said. “You can’t dwell on individuals that aren’t here anymore.”
Is this the best incoming class in program history?
Yes. Next topic.
Oh, you want more? Fine. Two words: Ethan Walker. Folks, he’s the real deal. Watch one highlight video of his and you’ll be convinced. “Shades of Wes Berg” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface for Walker. He has all-time talent written all over him and even though expectations for him are sky-high, he still may exceed them.
“Ethan Walker is a phenomenal lacrosse player,” Tierney said. “In the fall, we knew he was going to be really good. He’s been starting since the day he walked on campus because he’s just a ridiculous talent.”
Walker is the known quantity of this class, though. This freshman class is stacked top to bottom. From Walker to Logan and on down the list, this class is setting the Pioneers up for sustained national success.
As they learn how to play and act in this program from players like Cannizzaro, Pace, Trevor Baptiste, and Max Planning, they’re only going to get better. While the program may be a bit decimated by graduation after this season, this freshman class has the talent to step up and make up for the departures of the graduating seniors.
“It’s an interesting group because, at the end of 2020, we’ll look back and say ‘that was a great lacrosse class,'” Tierney said of his incoming freshmen. “Other than Ethan [Walker] and Danny Logan right now, I don’t see us needing those guys to step in and be impact players. The freshman class is going to be a really good one, it’s just that right now, they have a lot to learn and they’re playing behind some pretty good players.”
Fans should be excited about the prospect of this kind of sustained success. Tierney has spoiled Denver with such incredible talent and that’s not going to end anytime soon.
Lingering 2016 heartbreak
You’d be lying if you said that you don’t still feel the disappointment and despair from the loss to Towson at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium last spring. It was shocking, disappointing, and heartbreaking all at once. It’d be understandable if you were a bit hesitant to buy all the way into the 2017 Pioneers as National Championship favorites.
Just kidding. It’s not. Don’t let the way 2016 ended affect the way you look at the 2017 Pioneers. This is the preseason #1 team in the country for a reason. They’re stacked at every position and, more importantly, this talent is led by the greatest coach in the sport. The 2017 Pios are National Title favorites for a reason: they’re the best team in the country (on paper).
“I tell our team this all the time,” Tierney said of the preseason #1 ranking. “A lot of people say ‘it doesn’t mean anything, it’s preseason.’ It does mean something because it means our fellow coaches and the media thank that we’re pretty good. That means that we have to uphold that.”
2016 is over. It’s done. It still hurts, but 2017 has so much promise and there is a very real possibility that Denver will run away with the title this year. DU isn’t perfect. Their defensive play and clearing game need to vastly improve from last year and there are holes they need to fill, but there is no reason why they can’t recover immediately and make another run to Championship Weekend in Boston and come back to Denver with some more hardware.
“Everybody fears failure,” Tierney explained. “Nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to get hurt. Nobody wants to fall short of their goals. But everybody does eventually. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you fail at something, it can only make you better.”
Buckle up, Denver. The Pioneers are back and they’re ready to reclaim that National Championship trophy.