Denver Men’s Lacrosse’s road to Boston begins with a high-flying familiar foe

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

The stage is set for the clash of Division l lacrosse’s two western-most teams once more in the 2017 season. Fittingly, the duel will take place in the Lacrosse Capital of the West as the fifth-seeded University of Denver (DU) Pioneers host the Air Force (AFA) Falcons in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.

Facing off for the second time this season (Denver defeated AFA 14-6 at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium on Feb. 11.), the stakes are high as the winner will advance to the second round to take on the victor of the University of Notre Dame or Marquette University in Hempstead, New York at Hofstra University.

“I think as exciting as it naturally gets for Air Force versus Denver,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “Two westernmost Division l schools in the country, we’ve never played them in the playoffs before. This is going to bring some heightened awareness from both sides to make sure that this game in Colorado is exciting and important. We’re expecting only the best out of Air Force.”

Despite the intensified hype of playing their friendly foes in a single-elimination tournament setting, the Pioneers (11-3, 5-0 BIG EAST) are engrossed on the matchup and the capabilities of the momentous Falcons.

“We’re just going to treat this as any other game,” senior captain Connor Cannizzaro said. “Obviously we know them. They come out and play us really tough every time and give it all they got — that’s kind of their ‘MO’, they work as hard as they possibly can. We’re going to be prepared for that. They’re going to try to throw some different stuff at us, as are we to them. It’s going to be a good game to play against them.”

The Falcons (12-5, 6-1 Southern Conference) claimed their second consecutive SoCon title over the University of Richmond last weekend and are on a five-game winning streak. Rounding up his ninth season as head coach, Eric Seremet has advanced the program to its highest national ranking to date and has established a name for Air Force lacrosse on the national spectrum.

The Falcons’ tenacious attack is led by junior Chris Walsch with 36 goals and 26 assists and classmate Nick Hruby who scored 35 goals and added 10 helpers to date.

In net, AFA has split the majority of time between senior Mitch Rose and freshman Paxton Boyer. Rose boasts a goals against average (GAA) of 6.92 and a save percentage of .504, while Boyer has GAA of 7.83 and a save percentage of .443.

“I think both teams have gotten better over the course of the season,” freshman attack Ethan Walker said. “We’re just going to focus on ourselves, focus on our game plan and come out and play hard to the best of our abilities.”

The most recent loss to Marquette in the BIG EAST Semifinal on May 4 lingers for the Pioneers, but with the loss, the team finds inspiration in a unique parallel. Before claiming it’s eighth national title in Chicago, Denver’s hockey team lost the semifinal game to North Dakota in their conference tournament. The team was rolling on a 13-game winning streak before the loss. Similarly, DU lacrosse was hot on a six-game winning streak before dropping to Marquette at the same stage.

“Coach T mentioned that,” Walker said. “We had a team meeting after we lost that game to Marquette and he said the exact same thing. He said, ‘The hockey guys lost their conference game, but they weren’t discouraged about it. They still played hard, they practiced hard and they got the job done in the tournament.’ That’s what we’re going to do.”

Avoiding the fate of last season’s First Round upset is yet another lesson this year’s program has fully reflected on as they embark on this season’s journey to Boston.

“Last year our seniors were not even a year removed from a national championship and still just in awe how it happened. Now we know its possible for it not to happen,” Tierney said. “The heightened awareness is certainly there. Our seniors have been talking it up a lot to our younger guys. Obviously, we hope to not have a repeat performance of last year, but I think we’ll be ready to go.”

Denver is one of four programs (Syracuse, Maryland, Notre Dame) to have hosted a first-round game in each of the last five seasons. The players, especially the graduating class, recognize the importance of hosting at “Petey B” and defending their turf. The atmosphere of Denver lacrosse is like none other with the timely rhythm of Native American drums played by JoJo, the iridescent reflection of the Williams Carillon tower, all projected against the silhouette of the Front Range.

“It’s a really special thing to be a part of. It’s always an advantage to come and play here, we don’t want to lose on Peter Barton. That’s what we always say, that’s what we strive for,” Cannizzaro said. “This is what we play for. Everyone looks towards May and the playoffs and the NCAA. Us putting ourselves in this position where we’re in the tournament and have a home game. It’s a special thing to really compete and go as far as we can in this tournament and come home with a national championship.”

Faceoff between the Pioneers and Falcons is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. The game is sold out, but Hill Tickets will go on sale at 1 p.m. tomorrow.