Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
New faces circulate in and out of the lineup on a regular basis throughout the beginning of a season. Once roles and chemistry become apparent, the positions evolve into concrete lineups that account for situational alternates. A system as intricate and detailed as the University of Denver Pioneers lacrosse program’s can be intimidating to infiltrate, let alone thrive in. For some players, it comes naturally and immediately. For others, the transition requires adaptation, repetition and guidance to cultivate confidence. As this season’s senior class marks the last group of individuals who were a part of the 2015 national championship squad, new faces have embraced the roles vacated by their predecessors. Understanding the impact previous players left, the newcomers have combined the old with their individual aptitude to create a new era of Denver lacrosse as the Pioneers seek their second title.
This season, Denver has incorporated two sophomores who both have assumed critical roles among the starting-10. Colin Squires and Josh Matte are driving forces contributing to the recent successes of Denver’s dominant defense.
Squires, a long pole (LSM) turned defender, is filling the void left behind by previous four-year starter, team captain, and three-time All American Christian Burgdorf.
“I think last year when we had Christian Burgdorf we were really solid in who we were going to play,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “We had DJ [Dylan Johnson], Christian and Dylan Gaines. We recognized in recruiting what a talent Colin Squires was, but with Sean Mayle playing pole and those three playing at close [defense] it was a tough spot to find him for him [last year]. Last year we used him to kind of spell Sean Mayle at long-stick. Towards the end, last year, he was also playing some close. Then over the summer coach [John] Orsen and I were like, ‘Let’s just take a look at him at close this year.’”
The West Linn, Ore. native is playing alongside veteran defenders Dylan Johnson and Dylan Gaines under a synchronized and effective system of controlled aggressiveness employed by defensive coordinator John Orsen.
“It was a pretty hard transition,” Squires said. “A lot of people don’t actually know the difference between the positions, but they’re pretty different. Close defense, you have to guard from X. It was a little different getting adjusted to that, but Dylan Gaines and Dylan Johnson both made the transition really easy.”
Juniors, Johnson and Gaines embody traditional d-man traits; strength, size, and aggression. Squires’ midfield background compliments the brute force emitted from his linemates. While Squires is on the smaller side; sized 6-foot-2 and 180-pounds, about 20-30 pounds lighter than Gaines and Johnson, his explosive speed and ornate footwork provides a distinct element to combat a dynamic attackman.
“Number one — he’s really fast — that was key,” Tierney said. “Playing with DJ and Dylan Gaines, they’re both big strong kids — athletic, but big and strong. Colin Squires brought a little bit of a different element to us with his speed. Every team seems to have a really fast attackman. Gaines and Johnson, they can cover those guys, but it’s much easier for Squires to do it.”
“I think it’s definitely good to have speed,” Squires said. “Especially when I am usually guarding the X attackman and he’s a little bit faster. It definitely helps if you’re a bit quicker. Right now I’m trying to get a little bit bigger, but it’s good to have that speed there.”
With current LSM Sean Mayle finishing out his final season for the Crimson and Gold, Squires’ youth and versatility offers the possibility for him to return to long pole or continue his newly claimed influence at close defense.
“Next year without Sean Mayle you end up with some decisions to make,” Tierney said. “Maybe a guy like Squires gets bumped back up, although I really like the way these three guys are playing together [on defense]. Right now Jon Ober and Matt Jones are doing a nice job of filling in for Sean Mayle [temporarily out of the lineup], but we’ll see. You need a dynamic guy up top and he’s [Squires] been a great addition for us to have in there.”
Josh Matte, a former relief netminder, took over the starting position in the cage as junior Alex Ready starter suffered a mid-season slump. Matte boasts a 4-0 record since earning the starting position.
“He’s got more confidence. He’s more comfortable in there. The defense is more comfortable with him in there,” Tierney said. “He’s really improved his clearing game and he has a lot of poise in there. All we want is 50% (save percentage), that’s all we need. The way our defense is playing; the way Trevor Baptiste [faceoff specialist] is playing, the way our offense played the other night, if we get 50% and the other team only gets 15 or 16 shots on goal — we’re going to win. That’s just the way it goes.”
Similar to Squires, the transition wasn’t initially effortless, but after settling in Matte has gained confidence in his new role.
“It’s been tough. At first, it was really stressful,” Matte said. “But I got used to it when I started playing. It was weird to think about because playing with these guys [Denver’s offense] in practice is harder than playing in games. They are a lot better than any other offense we will play, most likely.”
An Issaquah, Wash. native, Matte, finds comfort in his defensive unit in front of him, specifically his familiarity with Squires. As Pacific Northwest natives, Matte and Squires have played with and against one another since middle school before their paths intertwined once more in the Mile High.
“I’ve been playing with Colin since eight or ninth grade and have been playing against him since fifth or sixth grade,” Matt said. “It’s really special having him in front of me, especially during the game. It’s awesome.”
Matte’s consistency in net has allowed Gaines and Johnson to enhance elements of their play through riskier decisions, knowing Matte will be equipped with whatever may be thrown his way. On Thursday, April 12, Gaines was added to the 2018 Tewaaraton Award Watch List.
While Matte has earned his spot between the pipes and provided Denver with the consistency the defense needs, Ready is back in the mix after splitting time with Matte last weekend during DU’s 22-6 win. Matte let five-goals past him in the opening 30-minutes while Ready relinquished just one goal in the second-half.
“At some point, there are other factors that go into this then making the saves he has to make,” Tierney said. “You don’t want to have a goalie controversy because that puts you in a guessing game of who is going to be good that day. We’re going to have a little bit of a shorter leash on him [Matte] because I think Alex is ready, but we’ll see. We’ll see. We’re proud of Josh.”
Denver will continue to utilize these prominent additions. The Pioneers return to Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium on Saturday, April 14 to host St. John’s University in their BIG EAST home opener. Faceoff is scheduled for 12 pm MT.