Denver vs. Albany: A clash of cultures beyond the X

Postseason. It’s what every program strives for and the threshold where few thrive. The outlier of the lacrosse world, the University of Denver Pioneers, continues to excel and assert a western presence in the postseason. “We relish in the role of being out west, out of the mainstream,” DU head coach Bill Tierney said, “We relish in the role of not being everybody’s favorite. We get excited about that.”

Coming off an enormous 9-7 victory over archrival Notre Dame in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, the Pioneers (13-3, 5-0 BIG EAST) are eager to continue their run towards their second national title. Only one game separates Denver from punching its sixth ticket in eight years to Championship Weekend in Foxborough, Mass.

Reaching the semifinals of this year’s May Madness,will be no easy feat; the Pioneers have their work cut out for them. Denver will face the No. 2 seeded Albany Great Danes (15-2, 5-1 America East), in Hempstead, N.Y. on Saturday, May 19.

Everyone’s attention is understandably focused on the epochal battle that will transpire at the X between the greatest faceoff specialist in history, DU’s Trevor Baptiste and the best faceoff specialist of the 2018 season, Albany’s TD Ierlan.

“It’s going to be a great battle,” Baptiste said. “I’m ready to be challenged out there. I think it’ll be a great game, not just the faceoffs. It’s going to be a battle all over the field.”

Baptiste, a 2018 Tewaaraton Finalist and No. 1 overall MLL draftee (Boston Cannons), boasts a current faceoff percentage of 76.5%. Ierlan, just a sophomore, is 83.4% at the X. Baptiste has a size advantage over Ierlan with his 5-foot-10, 230-pound frame. To contrast, Ierlan is 5-foot-9, 175-pounds, but counters with the advantage of tumultuous speed. A true battle of power versus finesse. 

“Trevor made the U.S. national team,” Tierney said. “He had to try out for that like five or six times. He knows what it’s like to face against another great faceoff guy and TD is one. He’s [Ierlan] different, he’s very quick, very talented. He wins the ball to himself most of the time. It’s going to be a great challenge. I’m not quite sure it’s going to be the determining factor. I think there will be a lot of other factors. But if it brings more attention, more viewers more interest to the game — then good. Those kids deserve it.”

While the clash at the X will be worth the watch, this matchup is captivating in every facet. From coaching styles to offensive and defensive tactics, Denver and Albany are polar opposites but have achieved massive and matching success within their differing approaches.

The Pioneers are fine-tuned in every aspect. From physical appearance to demeanor, to positions; Denver emphasizes minuscule details through a synchronized daily practice warm-up, specific maintenance, and importance of tradition that are employed under Tierney.

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DU taking the field for warmups – photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

The Great Danes are unconventional. From the individual expression in appearance to unpredictability on the field, coach Scott Marr leads a creative and diverse style of lacrosse.

NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Tournament - First Round
Albany lacrosse taking the field – photo courtesy of Barstool Sports

The differences are prominent, but both teams share the hunger and aspiration to advance. The ultimate decider will come down to who wants it more.

“We haven’t seen a team like them all year, all over the field,” DU’s offensive coordinator Matt Brown said. “It’ll be the biggest challenge at the faceoff X for Trevor, they have phenomenal wing play, they have a pole Troy Reh and a midfielder Kyle McClancy who might be one of the best middies in the league that both put a lot of pressure on you if you get the ball. Both of those guys play defense too — they have a lot of two-way guys.”

Albany ranks first in the country in time of possession with 34:24 minutes per game while Denver ranks third with 33:15 minutes per game. On the defensive side, Denver ranks first in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 7.44 goals per game. Albany is the runner-up with 7.71.

Denver’s top attackmen have come on hot as of late. Ethan Walker and Austin French combined for six of the nine goals scored against Notre Dame in the Quarterfinal including the equalizer from Walker and the go-ahead goal from French.

“I think it gives you a lot of momentum [advancing to play Albany],” French said. “At the same time, you want to reset after a game like that. You don’t want to get that feeling that you got over a hump and that you can relax. You have to keep the pedal down and keep things going the way they have.”

Surrounding Baptiste at the X, Danny Logan, Zach Runberg, and Jeremy Bosher have displayed tenacious wing play.

Denver’s defensive unit is relentless and operates like a well-oiled machine through communication, precision, and confidence. Junior goalie Alex Ready reclaimed his first start in the cage since March 10 as he backed the Pioneers past Notre Dame.

“Defense is all about efficiency,” DU defensive coordinator John Orsen said. “We’ve seen our efficiency increase throughout the year. I think it’s because of the communication, the guys knowing each other, trusting the system and believing in each other. It helps to be good in the net. That’s important too.”

Albany returned to a healthy lineup as attackman Connor Fields played in his first full game after sustaining a troublesome right-knee injury. The senior added seven points on two goals and five assists during the 18-9 First Round victory over Richmond.

While the program has been Division l since 2001, Albany has never advanced past the quarterfinals. Simultaneously at the helm since 2001, Marr has advanced the program’s notoriety and created a unique culture that the team fully embraces.

“You could look at it and say that for a team that’s never been there it could be an advantage for them,” Baptiste said. “For a team like Albany, they’re always in the conversation late in the season. It’s not like they’re new to the spotlight. They’re really hungry to get to the Final Four, opposed to us who have already been there. But we have a lot of classes and a lot of players who know what it takes and we’re excited to get back.”

As the Pioneers continue to battle a healthy roster, Denver’s systematic style and experience will be critical in the battle against Albany’s fast pace and eccentric hype.

With trip to Gillette Stadium on the line, the Pioneers and Great Danes faceoff at 12:30 MT.