Furious comeback waved off in last minute as Pioneers fall one win short of National Championship

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.  — As former Philadelphia Phillies baseball all-star outfielder Gary Maddox once memorably said after dropping a fly ball that cost the Phillies the National League pennant in 1977, “God answers all prayers, but sometimes, the answer is ’no.’“

Indeed, there will be no NCAA men’s lacrosse title for the Denver Pioneers this season, as the top-ranked University of Maryland Terrapins gained revenge on the fifth-seeded Pioneers with a 9-8 victory in the NCAA Semi-Final before 30,503 fans at Gillette Stadium.

Denver gutted out a strong second half to push the more athletic Terps, but in the end, DU forward and Boston area native Connor Donahue’s diving shot to tie the game as time expired was waved off because of a crease violation. And it was the right call.

“We always feel confident when we have the ball in our offensive end,” Connor Cannizzaro said. “Coach Brown drew up a great play, and they just came out and got in our passing lane so we didn’t have a look there. We had a chance at the end. Obviously, the call didn’t go our way, but that’s what happens sometimes in sports.”

“We need a shot clock in this game and we need to let the dive be back in the game,” DU head coach Bill Tierney added. “You’re taking away the two greatest parts of the game. It’s silly to see a kid, and their [Maryland’s] guy too, by the way, to see young men work as hard as they do to make that kind of athletic effort and have some guy in stripes say, ‘no, no, no.’ Our game is kind of silly right now without those two rules.”

First Team All-American and Tewaaraton Award finalist Trevor Baptiste’s dominance at the faceoff X was one of the key reasons why Denver was able to make a run to Championship Weekend, but Maryland was able to neutralize him for the most part. The Terps held Baptiste to just 11-for-21 at the X and forced 10 Pioneer turnovers.

“I’ve been in enough of these to know to not comment when I have something negative to say,” Tierney said when asked about his team’s play at the X. “I’ll have to pass on that one. Let’s move on.”

Despite Baptiste’s struggles at the X, the Pioneers had roared back from a 5-3 halftime deficit with strong wing play by Christian Burgdorf, timely saves by Alex Ready, and a couple of Ethan Walker goals, to call a timeout with 55 seconds to set up Donahue’s game-tying shot. It just wasn’t meant to be.

In truth, Maryland was the better team of the course of the game, outshooting DU 33-22, winning the ground ball battle, 31-20 and neutralizing the DU faceoff game with strong wing play, holding Trevor Baptiste well under his 77% average with only an 11-10 advantage for DU. The Terrapins, who fell to DU in the 2015 NCAA Championship Game 10-5 in Philadelphia, had been itching for two years to get another shot at the Pioneers in the NCAA Tournament. This time, they made it count behind a hat trick from midfielder Connor Kelly and, most importantly, Maryland held DU Senior All-American Connor Cannizzaro to just one goal on the day.

“They had a good defensive scheme,” Cannizzaro said of Maryland’s defensive dominance. “They came out and pressed all over the field. So, they disrupted our motion and ball movement just getting set up on the offense. When they started out, that kind of threw us off in the first half. But we figured it out and started playing better, started going back to basics in the second half, and we really started to get looks. I just wish we figured it out sooner.”

The Pioneers, who were cheered by 500+ fans in Foxborough and were ranked #1 in the pre-season, capped a very successful 13-4 season with the program’s third NCAA final four experience in the past four seasons, and its fifth in seven years. But inevitably, despite two very memorable wins over Notre Dame, and single wins over Duke and Towson, this season will be heavily remembered for the surprising pre-season departure of smooth senior All-American Zach Miller, whose absence in the DU midfield left a hole that was never truly filled.

In a broader sense though, this DU men’s lacrosse team’s final four appearance also capped the most successful overall sports season in DU history, which included the 2017 NCAA Hockey Championship, and the DU men’s soccer team’s first-ever College Cup appearance – the first time DU has ever had three men’s teams finish in the NCAA’s final four teams in their respective sports seasons.

Additionally, the DU ski team finished 3rd at the NCAA Championships, the women’s gymnastics team reached its first NCAA Championship weekend since 2008 with a 10th-ranked performance, to go with NCAA tournament appearances for women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s golf.  DU will likely finish in the top 10 of the men’s Capital One Cup,, if not the top five, and in the top 50 of the women’s Capital One Cup, which is an astonishing performance for a non-football school with a sports budget that remains a fraction of those in Power 5 conferences.

This one will be hard to swallow for Pioneers fans for a long, long time. They were right there all the way up until the end. They were one of the best teams all year. They ended up just a goal short of overtime and two goals short of another appearance in the National Championship. To be that close and come up empty hurts. But if there’s one thing for sure, Denver is loaded and they’ll be back. They’ll be back very soon.

Note: Nick Tremaroli also contributed to this piece