Building the Beast: Revelations from Trevor Baptiste’s understudies

Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

It’s undisputed that Trevor Baptiste is the best faceoff guy in the country, arguably in the history of the sport of lacrosse. Even his opponents will attest to his uncharted domination. He has redefined the role of a faceoff specialist. Any team that plays against the University of Denver Pioneers knows the matchup will be a challenge, particularly skewed at the X. For most teams, attempting to temper Baptiste is an obstacle they will only face once, maybe twice a season. But imagine that battle as a daily role, taking on the “Beast Baptiste” every single day — that is the reality for Denver’s alternate faceoff specialists Ryan Harnisch and Sean Penna.

Practice-after-practice Harnisch and Penna take the X at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium and compete against Baptiste. There’s an element of uniqueness to the daily test. On one hand, it’s humbling to have the opportunity to play against the best at every practice. On the other, it can be crushing. But Harnisch and Penna don’t complain or allow frustrations to overcome them — the backups have embraced their role and the daily challenge.

“To me, it’s like getting in the ring every day with Muhammad Ali,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said. “It’s like, ‘Why would I do this? But I do it because I’m going to get better. I’m going to help Trevor get better. Which helps our team get better.’ That’s the kind of attitude that Sean and Ryan have.”

Harnisch and Penna are distinctive in their individual faceoff techniques and qualities. Harnisch is a sturdy 5-foot-9, 175-pound junior who utilizes his explosive strength and tenacity. Penna is a sophomore sized at 5-foot-7, 155pounds who works the X with a quick and methodical approach.

Both players have risen to the occasion through emulating what the upcoming opponent might look like and test Baptiste’s abilities. The transferral has not only improved their individual performance but has enhanced Baptiste’s.  

“It’s a unit. It’s a faceoff unit,” Baptiste said. “If I win a bunch, they win a bunch. I know all of the hard work they put in just getting me ready for the game and giving me a look at what I’m going against. It’s huge. It’s definitely irreplaceable.”

“University of Denver lacrosse is built around a team concept,” Tierney said. “When you look at the faceoff team, Trevor has two teams. He has the guys that play on the wings, that’s his game-day team. Harnisch and Penna are his sideline team. Every time he comes to the sideline they tell him what’s going on. Trevor takes care of the business, but they tell him what’s going on the wings. They tell him what they think the [opposing] faceoff guy’s strategy is. They tell him what he could have done better or where the open guys are. Their input in a game is just as important as the wings in the active part.”

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Harnisch (left) and Baptiste (right) facing off during practice – photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

During games, Harnisch and Penna like to think of themselves as the backup quarterbacks, they read the play and analyze opposing tactics to consult with Baptiste.  

“I value their opinion so much,” Baptiste said. “If I’m having a bad day or just lost a few faceoffs in a row Ryan and Sean are the first guys I’m going to. They always have great answers.”

With the days numbered of having Baptiste as a faceoff weapon, Harnisch and Penna continue to help Baptiste and their team. And Baptiste simultaneously improves the pallet of his predecessors.

“Confidence. When I see Trev out there he is very calm and relaxed,” Penna said. “I think if I can do the same I’ll be in a good position.”

“They’re big shoes to fill,” Harnisch said. “Seeing his grit and determination every day. He works pretty hard. That’s something to try to match — if there’s really anything I can emulate.”

The unwavering commitment and relent from Harnisch and Penna is a testament to the values of the program and unity of the team. This level of devotion is vital in the postseason, but more importantly, leaves a lasting impact in the players’ lives.

“I always say to our guys; skill and athleticism fade away over the course of time, but teammates never do,” Tierney said. “They’ll always be remembered as guys who had a chance to be great faceoff guys, but they’ll always be remembered as great teammates. At the end of the day in ten years, twenty years, thirty years from now — when guys have families — you look back at the bigger picture opposed to one game. That will shine. I give those guys a lot of credit.”