Photo courtesy DU Athletics
Bill Tierney demands a standard of excellence, tradition and character from his players, individually, and contributing to the collective culture of the University of Denver Pioneers men’s lacrosse program. In just his nine seasons since taking over the helm, Tierney has established the program as the, “Lacrosse Capital of the West,” and provided exposure to grow the game. Since winning the program’s first national championship on May 25, 2015, Tierney has only sought to extend Denver’s accolades and maintain the ability to contend against prestigious competition. With the days until the first faceoff of the 2018 season numbered, the Pioneers aspire to raise the championship trophy as the lone victors come May 28, in Foxboro, Mass. Two years removed from the program’s sole title, DU has grasped a reverence for the journey that leads to such a special achievement.
“The guys always remember a season by how it ends. You’re either the champion or it was a failure,” Tierney said. “We all know that’s not true, it [last season] was a great season. We all felt that it was a really good season, yet it left us with some real motivation, maybe more than ever. We’re not going to overlook that BIG EAST championship anymore. We’ve talked about that everyday, that’s important to us. We’ve fallen flat in the last two years and that’s going to become really important. Certainly, we feel that we have the talent to win it all, but that doesn’t mean you win it all.”
Tierney has established pivotal objectives; win the regular season BIG EAST title, the BIG EAST conference title and the national championship. Failure to complete one does not ensure that the winning of the national championship is impossible, but achieving each component propels the outcome of completing the trio.
With a devastating NCAA Semifinal loss [9-8] to Maryland on May 27, 2017 burning in the back of the players’ minds and one last run for the seniors; the last remaining class that won the national championship, the Pioneers are poised to make a deep run in 2018.
The Senior Class
An 11-man class shapes the class of 2018. Six midfielders, two attackmen, one defender and one long-stick midfielder (LSM) and one iconic faceoff specialist, Trevor Baptiste.
“The seniors are great. We feel like those guys are doing really great things,” Tierney said. “You ask the seniors to impart the culture on the young guys. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. I think our captains; Trevor Baptiste, Sean Mayle and Connor Donahue have done a really good job. It’s not just them, it’s the nine other guys as well. As a group, they are highly motivated, especially with the way last year ended. They are as good of a senior group as I’ve ever had. The results are going to come with the games, but it’s very encouraging, with [their] work ethic, how they are in the weight room, their spirit on the field.”
Dominating the X
While the fortune of witnessing a legendary player suit up for DU at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium is winding down, the unprecedented success of senior Trevor Baptiste will only continue.
A three-year starter, United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) All-American (2015, 2016 and 2017), Tewaaraton Award Finalist (2017), and member of the Team USA for the 2018 Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL), Baptiste has redefined the position of, “Faceoff, get-off (FOGO).” Baptiste has amassed 32 points on 22 goals and 10 assists throughout his career for the Crimson and Gold. 12 of those goals came in the 2017 season.
Baptiste established a versatility of winning the faceoff and joining the attack, a lethal element the Pioneers are thrilled to utilize during the upcoming season.
“After the summer that Trevs had playing in the collegiate box league, you have to,” Assistant [offensive] coach Matt Brown said. “Even if you said to yourself, ‘We can’t waste energy because he’s the best faceoff guy in the country,’ his offensive abilities have just skyrocketed from this past summer. We’re figuring out a way for how to make that work. I don’t think it will be a shock to anybody if you see number-nine staying in the offensive end for a little bit longer than usual this year. He still needs to win every faceoff, that’s his number one job.”
An outstanding component of Denver’s game last season was the domination the team developed along its wing-play. Current senior and LSM Sean Mayle and sophomore midfielder Danny Logan provided Denver with momentum in their ruthless efforts to assist Baptiste at the X.
Mayle and Logan played defensive midfield roles last season, but in the offseason, Logan has enhanced his abilities catered towards the offense.
“Danny [Logan] is going to be a key guy in the middle of the field and on the wings,” Brown said. “He’s come back just guns are blazing. He’s really healthy and looks great. He’s added a new dynamic to his game where he’s not just a righty midfielder anymore, he’s right and lefty. You’re going to see that in the early season, he’s focused a lot on being able to go both directions. His load has just been added up a little bit and it’s shifted. You’ll see him on the wings, you’ll see him on the offense and he’ll still play some defense occasionally because he’s one of our best defenders.”
The absence of 2017 graduates Tyler Pace and Max Planning has exposed openings in the midfield, perhaps Denver’s most competitive sector for play time. Senior Connor Donahue and junior Colton Jackson return as the frontrunners for the starting positions, but identifying their counterpart as well as the other three potential lines remains undetermined. Junior Johns Hopkins transfer, Drew Supinski, is a notable contender in this mix.
“The other thing that really has happened this year is; the competition for jobs is really high,” Tierney said. “A lot of guys who have been patient and working hard, but haven’t quite broken into the lineup have some chances. We feel like we have 12 or 13 midfielders who can play, so battling for those first 6-9 spots is important…The hard job is going to be for Coach Brown to decide who to pair with who in the midfield.”
The most prominent gaps to fill in Denver’s lineup are the right-attack position and a starting defender position, vacated by former captains and 2017 graduates, Connor Cannizzaro and Christian Burgdorf. Cannizzaro ended his career with a 58-game active point streak and an indispensable component of the electric Pioneer attack. Burgdorf was an incessant force for Denver’s defense. His guidance towards his underclassmen, long-pole counterparts, and goalie Alex Ready was critical in cultivating a persistent defense.
This season’s returners have accepted the challenge of filling the roles and positions left by Cannizzaro and Burgdorf.
“You don’t replace guys like Connor [Cannizzaro],” Brown said. “He was really special. He brought a unique dynamic to our offense. We’ve got to change a little bit, we’re going to be a little bit different. What we’ve explored with is not changing our identity on how we play, but changing what we do in the game. We’ve changed some different sets up. We’ve changed some different combinations up. We’ve added a few more layers to the offense. I feel like with the group that we have, we have a great group that really works hard. Their IQ level is extremely high. They’re able to comprehend it and understand what we’re doing. It doesn’t seem to be too much for them.”
Fortunately, Cannizzaro’s protege, sophomore Ethan Walker, is expected to continue his immense success as a quick-footed lefty attack with a laser-like precision shot.
Juniors Dylan Johnson and Dylan Gaines return as a dual epitome of the Denver defense. A perfect balance of power and finesse, the twin “Dylan” towers embody the controlled aggressiveness style employed by assistant coach John Orsen.
Junior Alex Ready returns as the starter between the pipes, but the battle for the second-string position is fierce among the five reserves.
The 2018 slate features just six chances of playing at Peter Barton, beginning with an exhibition game against the University of Delaware on Feb. 3 at 11:30 am MT.
Denver faces the test of traveling to the home turf of top-ranked opponents; Duke University (Feb. 26), the University of North Carolina (March 5) and the University of Notre Dame (March 10).
“Our mantra here since the day I walked in the door has been; we’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere,” Tierney said. “That’s why the  schedule has five games and a home scrimmage. Last year we had nine home games, but that was just a quirk of a lot of years being away. It’s going to be like this. When you play Duke on the road, when you play Notre Dame on the road, you play North Carolina on the road, as well as the BIG EAST teams on the road that we’re playing, it’s a challenge.”
The successes define a program just as much as the losses. The response to each exemplifies the resilience, commitment and persistence of that program’s culture. The Pioneers have three goals as stepping stones of completing a broader picture. The first step in their conquest is the day-to-day, game-by-game achievements.
“I would never want to work at a place where you have an easy schedule until the NCAA tournament. You just don’t get hardened by that. It just doesn’t work,” Tierney said. “I tell our players all the time you’re going to lose a game here and there, but the most important thing about that is how you react. Do you grow from it? Do you learn from it? Do we get better from it? Usually, around here, we have. We want to play the best teams and I think we do. We play one of the best schedules in the country.”