Championship Weekend preview in February? Denver, Duke say yes

Photo courtesy of Lacey Den Hartog

Two of college lacrosse’s top powerhouses are linked beyond their respective reputations and accolades. The [4/3] University of Denver Pioneers and the [1/1] Duke University Blue Devils are intertwined by the origin and relations across the individual helms. New York natives, DU’s head coach Bill Tierney of Levittown and Duke’s head coach John Danowski of Bronxville, just two years apart in age, quickly established ambitious and influential reputations as two of college lacrosse’s winningest coaches.

Duke head coach John Danowksi – photo courtesy of the Duke Chronicle

Danowski leads with 386 career victories, while Tierney has 382 to-date. Combined, the coaches have won 10 national titles, seven from Tierney and three from Danowski. The long-time pals will subdue their emotions for a day to support their allegiances as the programs go head-to-head on Friday, Feb. 16 in Durham, N.C. at 5 pm ET.

The game marks the first time in four years that the Pioneers will face the Blue Devils on their home-field, Koskinen Stadium.

“They’re a very good team. It’s going to be a challenge,” Tierney said. “We haven’t played them there in a long time. It’s interesting, we only played them at home once [for the first time] in a long time because we played them in those neutral games. We haven’t been there since 2014. It’s an interesting setup; it’s a grass field, we never play on grass. It’s going to be soggy. Does that slow us down? Does that affect Trevor [Baptiste]? Who knows, I don’t know. We just have to figure it out.”

coach t
DU head coach Bill Tierney – photo courtesy of NCAA

Each coach’s mirrored commitment to discipline, details and shaping their players into upstanding young men is transmitted within the notoriety and successes displayed by the Pioneers and the Blue Devils.

Prior to acquiring the helm at Duke in 2007, following the Duke lacrosse scandal, Danowski was the head coach of Hofstra University from 1986-2006. He coached DU’s current assistant coach and defensive coordinator John Orsen, who graduated from Hofstra in 2006.

“I know their coaching staff very well,” Orsen said. “They pride themselves on the fundamentals.”

While Denver has just recently emerged on Duke’s, and the rest of college lacrosse’s radar for that matter, the competition and respect administered between programs has cultivated a stage for an enthralling matchup. Friday marks the 13th meeting between the Pioneers and the Blue Devils, with the series split 6-6. DU has won the last three consecutive games.

Duke (3-0, 0-0 ACC) is sizzling after cruising past Air Force, High Point, and Jacksonville. The Blue Devils are averaging a whopping 18.33 goals per game and only relinquishing an average of 6 goals per game.

Among a 13-man senior class, Justin Guterding is dominating Duke’s explosive offense. The lefty attackman is providing critical leadership to direct the hopeful program back to Championship Weekend for the first time since 2014 when the Blue Devils claimed their third national title. Since embarking on his final season for the Duke Blue and White, Guterding’s production is blistering. The Garden City, N.Y. product has registered 27 points on 12 goals and 15 assists.

“Young with a great older leader [the Duke lineup],” Tierney said. “They’ve got Guterding who is a real stud. [He’s] a great player, one of the best in the country. His leadership and his ability is carrying some young guys, who are also very talented, to do great things offensively. They’re also really athletic defensively and they have a fifth-year goalie [Danny Fowler] who has been through everything. It’s not just stopping Guterding, it’s also trying to score. It’s a challenge, it’s going to be a challenge.”

Duke’s Jake Guterding celebrating after a goal – photo courtesy of Duke Athletics

Despite Duke’s senior leadership, the coaching staff has integrated the versatility and aptitude of the freshman and sophomore classes. Namely, rookie attackman Joe Robertson has assumed an essential role and established chemistry with Guterding and sophomore counterpart Joey Manown.

“They [Duke] are very skilled,” Orsen said. “If we can get on their hands, disrupt them and make them run away to the sideline a little bit, that will certainly help. We’ve got to play tough, play tight and play together. We have to communicate. If you slip up one single thing, they’ll make you pay. I think if our guys buy into the system and buy into their own athleticism that’ll be huge.”

Duke’s defense features distinct tactics to disrupt their opponent’s offensive rhythm and pace. The Blue Devils have yet to allow a goal during the first quarter of the 2018 campaign.

“They do some unique things defensively,” DU’s assistant coach and offensive coordinator Matt Brown said. “They have three short-sticks that are interesting in the standpoint that each one of them does something a little bit different. There’s one kid who throws a one-handed wrap and tries to take the ball away. There’s another kid who tries to jam you up with what we call a hold and they’ll slide to him. There’s one who will try to just shut off his man to disrupt the flow of your offense. I think each one of those develops a unique defense for the team. We’ve talked a lot about how we’re going to handle each one of those scenarios and how we’re trying to not let that affect our flow.”

While the Pioneers only have one game under in the books, the team is enthused to travel to face the No. 1 team in the nation. Denver’s opener against Air Force imposed challenges due to the inclement, whiteout conditions, but provided critical takeaways regarding promising executions and what areas require attention for improvement.

“Offensively there was some turnovers we shouldn’t have had,” Brown said. “If we hadn’t had them we could have gotten a stranglehold on them. We could have stopped their runs. They had two, two-goal spurts where they scored back-to-back [start of the second-half]. That’s really important. You can’t give anybody any type of momentum. If that game was closer at halftime we could have seen a different result at the end. The big thing is that we need to maintain focus and hunger. Do I think the climate and the conditions had something to do with it? No question. I think it’s a great lesson and reminder for our guys to say, ‘We’ve got to continue to be focused and we’ve got to continue to play with our best effort. Come out the second half and treat it like the beginning of the game.’ I don’t think you’ll see that problem this Friday. Playing the No. 1 team in the country, our guys know what is at stake.”

The Pioneers [1-0, 0-0 BIG EAST) will continue to utilize the depth within their roster. Senior attackman Colton McCaffrey earned the start against Air Force alongside Austin French and Ethan Walker against. An advantage DU is eager to implement is incorporating faceoff extraordinaire, Trevor Baptiste, to join a DU possession following a win at the, “X.” Another element of DU’s game includes an emphasis on action from the long-poles, including LSM Sean Mayle and defenders Dylan Gaines and Dylan Johnson, in transition.

DU’s Trevor Baptiste after winning a faceoff – photo courtesy of Lacey Den Hartog

“It’s a big early-season game that at the end of the year if all goes well for both teams it should be looked upon as a great early season game on national TV,” Tierney said. “You know they’re going to have a great season. Whoever wins this knows he has a one in the bank when it comes to the end of the year. As strange is that is on February 16th, you’ve got one in the bank. Hopefully both teams will continue to have great seasons, win or lose on this one.”

As the first nationally televised game of the 2018 campaign, on ESPNU, this top-five matchup has potential for a postseason rematch come Memorial Day weekend in Foxboro, Mass.