Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
Perhaps the most pressing question entering the 2018 campaign for the University of Denver Pioneers was who would take over the position vacated by the accomplished and standout attackman, Connor Cannizzaro? Filling a position left by one of the most skilled players in modern lacrosse who was simultaneously a team leader posed a true challenge — but not one Denver’s program hadn’t previously faced. The departure of impact players like Mark Matthews, Jeremy Noble, Wesley Berg, and Christian Burgdorf presented a predicament, but each obstacle was one that the coaching staff and players embraced at every occurrence.
“We’ve got two young men there, Colton McCaffrey and Colin Rutan,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “In the fall we tried to get them to understand you don’t have to replace Connor Cannizzaro, but somebody has to play in that spot.”
“You don’t replace a guy like Connor Cannizzaro,” DU offensive coordinator Matt Brown said. “But somebody else emerges. Your team changes slightly with the personality that you have in there. I think both of those guys give us a different look.”
The reality of losing a player like Cannizzaro or any of the others previously mentioned for that matter, who played with such poise, talent, and ability to dictate a game is special, yet, it is not a role that can be duplicated. The task then becomes creating a threat out of the available roster; something the Pioneers (10-2, 4-0 BIG EAST) have excelled at.
“This is what it’s all about,” Tierney said. “When a guy leaves you try to replace him, you don’t just say, ‘OK. We won’t play next year.’ We know next year there are going to be faceoffs in a game. Are we going to say, ‘Oh, we won’t play you because we don’t have Trevor?’ No. We’re going to find another way to get the job. I think that’s been a mainstay of our program. People wonder, ‘How are they 10-2 again? How are they looking for another NCAA tournament run?’ The reason for it is guys like Colton and Colin that allow us to be confident that their preparation in their freshmen and sophomore years will get them to a point that when they are called upon, they’re going to do a great job — and they have.”
The distinctive traits that McCaffrey and Rutan each offer complement in different situations with the Ethan Walker and Austin French pairing.
McCaffrey, a senior from Parker, Colo. plays with finesse. With a 6-foot-0, 185-pound frame, McCaffrey utilizes his cunning in combination with intricate agility to be an all-around presence on the attack. Throughout his final campaign for the Crimson and Gold, McCaffrey registers fourth on the leaderboard to-date, with 18 points on nine goals and nine assists.
Rutan encompasses a physical and dominant flair alongside his counterparts. The junior from Walnut Creek, Calif. has harnessed his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame as an explosive force going one-on-one.
“The two-headed monster of Colton and Colin give you a different look when one is in there opposed to the other,” Brown said. “Colton has played quite a bit for us over the course of his career. He’s very skilled — he’s a goal-scorer — he’s got great hands. We saw it this summer when he was playing in the box league [CCBLL]. Especially in the past three weeks, you’re really feeling Colton’s senior presence. Colin has been banging on the door for a long time. He really has been impressing us in practice just through how hard he goes. When you think about the loss of Connor Cannizzaro last season; what he brought to the table, among many things, was his dodging presence. He was able to attack you with speed from behind GLE [goal line extended]. Colin can do that. I think mixing the two, back-and-forth has been really good for us.”
Without the comfort or reliance of a player like Cannizzaro who is fully capable of taking over a game, the Pioneers have restored the original personality of their dynamic, yet methodical offense.
“We don’t have a guy that we can say, ‘Hey, there’s five seconds left in the game. Go beat your guy and throw it in the goal and we’ll go win in overtime.’ We don’t have that guy right now,” Tierney said. “So we’ve actually come back full-circle with Colton and Colin on what Denver Lacrosse was built upon which is ball movement, people movement and two guys that present different problems for our opponent. They are both right-handed, but they play differently. It’s given us another weapon.”
Early in the season, both McCaffrey and Rutan essentially scored the game-winner in the 11-10 overtime thriller against Towson University. McCaffrey’s initial walk-off goal was controversially waved off at the conclusion as the shot was taken after the final horn. Rutan would proceed to seal the victory by beating his opponent one-on-one and firing his shot over the goalie’s shoulder.
“It’s interesting that they both had a game-winner in the same game which is pretty cool,” Tierney said. “We’re confident in both guys.”
The integration of McCaffrey and Rutan has proven that as definitive additions in the 2018 lineup each is capable of what is asked of them. The [4/4] Pioneers’ recent successes are largely attributed to the regained confidence emitted from the offense following the transition to a new era.
“I still think for both of them their best lacrosse is in front of them,” Brown said. “They continue to make improvements throughout the year and that’s what you want to see.”