Photo courtesy Denver Athletics
Some traditions are meant to be broken. For the University of Denver Pioneers, the established makeup of the midfield has been revised. Under assistant coach and offensive coordinator Matt Brown, the midfield lines were notoriously constructed with a traditional middie, a speedy dodger and a composed feeder. United, the trio is a dynamic and challenging unit to defend because of each player’s strengths that balance out and harmonize into a collective whole.This year is different. Throughout the 2018 season, Denver’s midfield has adopted a new personality. With setbacks early on, a gaping hole in the lineup and a deep bench of eager talent, Brown and head coach Bill Tierney were presented with complex decisions.
“The setup of the lines is historical,” Brown said. “It’s what we’ve been like; a traditional, a quick dodger and a playmaker, feeder — that’s what Tyler [Pace] filled. Early in the season, we felt the absence on Tyler because we just weren’t having that success. I think with the emergence of Teddy Sullivan and Joe Reid and continued play of Colton Jackson, they are three guys that are a little more similar to each other.”
Teddy Sullivan and Joe Reid were immediate additions to the starting lineup. Neither player embodied the previous roles of a speedy dodger or a calculated playmaker. Rather, both mirror the style of play of a traditional powerful middie; like Colton Jackson.
Pace, a 2017 graduate, was a crucial component of the Pioneers’ lineup and culture. A four-year starter with an exceptional lacrosse IQ, he was a steady feeder with a pulse for the game’s tone.
The midfield’s third counterpart, Connor Donahue, encompasses the role of a smaller, but explosive and excellent dodger. Midseason, Donahue suffered a lower-body injury and proceeded to miss the following games against Georgetown and Villanova. His absence exposed yet another gap in the midfield.
Early in the 2018 campaign, Jackson sustained an upper-body injury against North Carolina and missed the following game against Notre Dame. Jackson has since returned to the lineup. He has been critical in anchoring Reid and Sullivan while simultaneously regaining his own strength.
“He’s [Jackson] just finding himself again,” Tierney said. “He’s going to be really good in these next [remaining] games, however many hopefully we have. For a kid to come in and start as a freshman like Teddy [Sullivan], like Colton, it’s a big step. Especially here, you have to have a pretty mature mindset to handle the intricacies of coach Brown’s offense, the game after game, after game of important games that are really meaningful and what Colton has done for us in tournaments is phenomenal. Teddy is the next Colton, but Colton has been really, really good. We have another year and a half of him, so that’s good to know.”
Sullivan’s path has emulated Jackson’s; assuming a pivotal role as a rookie. Jackson, a current junior, has been supportive to Sullivan throughout the transition.
“I’ve been so impressed with them [Sullivan and Reid],” Jackson said. “What I’ve noticed in college sports so far is that the guys who are really having the most success on the field are the guys who are confident. Clearly, every guy on this team has the skills to play Division l lacrosse, but Teddy and Joe really stepped up and have shown how confident they can be in big-time games.”
What attracted the coaching staff to integrate Sullivan in the starting midfield line as opposed to the returners was his tenacity, maturityand utilization of his size — the left-shot boasts a 6-foot-1 and 200-pound frame.
“From Day 1 coach Brown thought Teddy [Sullivan] had the ‘it’ factor,” Tierney said. “He’s big, strong, fast, he has all of the skill in the world — he throws amazing passes. The trouble with Teddy early was that he wouldn’t hit the goal with his shots. With the unfortunate injury of Connor Donahue, it forced us to use Teddy in there. Then, with the fortunate incident with him [Sullivan] getting four [goals] against Villanova it brought out some confidence. Now, he’s playing confidently.”
“Teddy is just a physical presence,” Brown said. “We’ve known that he has had the athletic ability to do these things. What I have been most impressed with by him is his ability to handle the tight pressure situations that are hard to navigate through.”
Reid, a senior from Petaluma, Calif., has added to his successes season-by-season. His growth is largely correlated with boosts in confidence.
“Joe Reid is all about confidence,” Tierney said. “When he’s on, he is as good as anybody in the country. I think what he just needed was to be on in a big moment. When he scored the tying goal against Georgetown a couple weeks ago, it was a big moment. We were struggling and it was just a great play on his part. I think it woke him up to this confidence that he is a good player and he can get things done.
“I’m a real fan of seniors coming out and really doing what they do in their senior year. Ultimately, at the end of the year, you need your seniors to be playing well.”
Reid had a career-high game during last weekend’s 15-6 win against St. John’s, claiming four points on three goals and one assist.
“The biggest transition for me was just having more chances in a game and having more opportunities to do well,” Reid said. “I think Teddy, Colton and I play pretty similar. We’re confident shooting the ball from the outside and dodging.”
At 6-foot-0 and 210-pounds, Reid is a true threat on twine. Reid’s shot is not only immaculately precise in tight spaces, but is a loaded quick-release.
“For him, it’s just continuing to be aggressive,” Brown said. “He takes good shots. He shoots the ball better than anyone. To see his confidence skyrocket now and see him getting high volumes of shots in games now is where we want him to be.”
The similar styles between Jackson, Sullivanand Reid work in unison with an overlay of each individuals’ slight uniqueness. Together, the trio is an end-to-end force.
“[They’re] probably the most athletic unit that we’ve put on the field maybe ever, in the midfield,” Brown said. “Just from a pure speed, strength, and power standpoint. It does make us different. It’s not as typically balanced as the Denver midfield has been in the past. But I think all three of those guys being a dodging threat, all three of those guys being a shot-on-the-run threat — could present problems for our opponents.”
The transformation in Denver’s midfield has fostered success. Fortunately, just as the Pioneers are hitting their stride collectively, players like Jackson and Donahue are rejoining the action.
“Connor [Donahue] has been on our first midfield two years now,” Tierney said. “But these three have done a great job. I think you’ll see Connor mixed in with the first group and another group we’re forming that we think will be more conducive to his play. This week we’re just going to mix lines and see what works against this team [Providence]. They’re a very good defensive team so it’s going to take a little bit of experimenting to see what works.”
The No. 3/4 Pioneers will travel to Providence for the final road game of the BIG EAST regular season. Faceoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. MT.