Denver’s internal adjustments key in preparation for Top-10 clash against Villanova

photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

Denver has just barely scraped by its opponent in three of its last four games. Slow starts and costly turnovers have troubled the No. 4-ranked Pioneers. With the regular season over halfway completed, each game holds more significance now that conference play is underway.The Pioneers (7-2, 1-0 BIG EAST) are coming off of a 6-5 win in their BIG EAST opener against the Georgetown University Hoyas on Saturday, March 31. For the second consecutive game, the Pioneers were held to one goal through the first 30-minutes of action, at the hands of Towson and then Georgetown. The Pioneers won’t be so fortunate to score just one goal in the first-half and still pull out the win against a team like their upcoming opponent; the No. 7-ranked Villanova University Wildcats.

“It’s frustrating obviously scoring one goal in the first-half of each of the last two games,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “As we look at the film, we honestly did some good things. We had our shots. When you go through it you think that your just not playing well, you’re not getting anything or whatever. When you look at the film, we had tons of shots.”

The Pioneers were without starting midfielders Connor Donahue and Drew Supinski and long-stick middie Sean Mayle against the Hoyas. While the absences initially disrupted Denver’s offensive rhythm, the vacancies provided other players to receive more action and for the Pioneers to utilize the depth of their talented bench.

“I think it can [disrupt the flow of the offense], but you try not to,” Tierney said. “You talk about the, “next man up” and all of those cliche things. Which is true, to be honest. Jon Ober and Matt Jones who filled in for Sean Mayle did a great job. We wouldn’t have given up any less than five goals had Sean been playing. We might have scored more, but we wouldn’t have given any less up. Then, Joe Reid comes in the first midfield [replacing Donahue] and he gets a goal. Teddy Sullivan didn’t get any points, but he made two really good plays. We got better from playing them. We played something like 11 midfielders in the first quarter.”

Arguably, Denver’s greatest weapon is Baptiste’s dominance at the X. The senior boasts a .755 faceoff winning percentage. Baptiste won 12-of-15 faceoffs against Georgetown and initiated a three-goal fourth quarter run. Yet, this year, the Pioneers have struggled to utilize the 70% or higher consistent possession successes.

“Trevor is winning faceoffs, but I’m disappointed we haven’t taken advantage of that yet,” Tierney said. “One of these days we’re going to take advantage of 70-75% faceoffs and make somebody scream that they can never get the ball. Right now because we turn the ball over or their [opponent] is making good saves against us, that huge advantage that we have isn’t quite being taken advantage of.”

Perhaps the most outstanding and positive takeaway from the conference opener against Georgetown was the confidence and chemistry projected from Denver’s defense. After four-year starter Christian Burgdorf graduated, the vacancy was filled by sophomore Colin Squires to play alongside veterans Dylan Gaines and Dylan Johnson. As Gaines and Johnson have adjusted to Squires, the trio has visibly gained trust in each another to implement Denver’s controlled aggressiveness style of play.

Two-year starting goalie Alex Ready was replaced by sophomore Josh Matte mid-season. Matte started in his third consecutive game against the Hoyas and made seven saves.

“I think it goes hand-in-hand,” Tierney said. “Josh is making the saves he has to make. Every once in a while when Alex [Ready] was playing he’d make a ridiculous save. He’d dive across the crease. Josh is not making those. Josh is making the ones he needs to make, the ones he should make. If he just does that and our defense plays continues playing the way it is then now, the defense can play a little tougher. Now the defense can stretch a little more. Now the defense can take more chances. They know if they give up a crappy shot he [Matte] is going to make a save. It goes hand-in-hand. He [Matte] is playing well because the defense is giving him the shots that he can save.”

The Wildcats (8-2, 1-0 BIG EAST) beat Marquette 14-9 in their BIG EAST opener. The lineup features an explosive offense that combines varying skill sets into one threatening whole.

“The way they [Villanova] play lacrosse is different from any other team in the country,” Tierney said. “All of these other teams; Virginia and Brown they talk about playing fast, but this team you never know. Every possession is something different. All six [offensive] guys are confident in their dodging and shooting ability. They play together as a team, they’re not very selfish. They have more assists than anybody in the country. They have more shots than anybody in the country. It becomes a nightmare.”

This matchup mirrors the one two years ago; blizzardous conditions and a campus that radiated energy and pride just days removed from victorious men’s basketball national championship. However, this meeting differs; the Wildcats aren’t so black and white this season, their successes are evident from their elaborate unpredictability.

“You can’t say what’s going to happen,” Tierney said. “Some teams you kind of know their offense so you can kind of predict how they’re going to play. You can kind of predict how to stop them. These guys — no two goals are the same — it’s all over the place. To their credit, they make it hard on you.”

For the Pioneers, internal refinement and reflection will be key in preparing for the top-10 clash. Denver will likely be without Donahue and Mayle for Saturday. Donahue is suffering from a lower-body injury and will be a game-time decision. Mayle’s status is to be determined due to personal reasons. The Pioneers will be without the Johns Hopkins transfer, Supinski, for the remainder of the season because of personal reasons.

The game was moved from Saturday to Friday, April 6 evening due to inclement weather in Pennsylvania. Faceoff is now scheduled for 7 pm ET.