Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
Just like that, another season of lacrosse has come and gone. The Yale Bulldogs ended the Ivy League drought by claiming the 2018 national title and their first of the NCAA era by defeating Duke 13-11 on Monday, May 28. The last Ivy team prior to Yale to have hoisted the championship trophy come Memorial Day was Princeton in 2001 under Bill Tierney, who is now at the helm of the University of Denver Pioneers.This year seemed promising for the Pioneers to clinch their second national title in program history. The “Lacrosse Capital of the West” appeared to have all of the right pieces; bench depth, consistency in the cage, the top scoring defense, senior leadership, a phenomenal coaching staff, excellent wing play and the best faceoff specialist in the history of lacrosse — and yet it’s quest was halted in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
The epic faceoff battle between Denver’s revolutionary Trevor Baptiste and the University of Albany’s budding TD Ierlan ensued in Hempstead, N.Y. Albany defeated the Pioneers 15-13. What it came down to was a battle of possession and capitalizing on each vital opportunity. Albany scored in a burst of four, three or more goal runs. The Great Danes flourished on the momentum to dismantle Denver’s relentless defense and create miscommunications. The Pioneer offense was smothered by Albany’s swarming defense, their playbook was exposed and their dynamic ball movement rendered stagnant.
Denver’s push came far too late, two late tallies by seniors Joe Reid and Colton McCaffrey provided the Pioneers hope that ultimately expired with the clock.
The Season Itself
Really only two quarters cost the Pioneers a perfect season. Denver was dominant throughout the entire preseason and conference play. Turnovers and poor adaptation were the ultimate troublesome factors that incrementally collapsed Denver’s chances from the inside out.
The sole two losses for the Pioneers came down to a meltdown of a fourth quarter against the eventual NCAA runner-up, Duke. The Blue Devils generated a seven-goal run to take the 15-12 victory.
Denver’s second loss came at the hands of its western rival, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish fired off a 6-1 advantage by the end of the first quarter. The Pioneers battled back, but never recovered the initial deficit and lost 11-9.
The Pioneers did themselves no favors heading into the NCAA Tournament after losing the BIG EAST championship game 8-3 against Georgetown. Denver grappled with its poor seeding and was able to advance past the First Round against Notre Dame. But the Georgetown loss proved to administer an unhinging impact that Albany later exposed.
Denver’s quest for its second title remains. The end of the Baptiste era is officially here, but the Pioneers have proved themselves against all odds and critics that they are here to stay.
Denver faced an ample amount of adversity early on; a wrist-injury causing power middie Colton Jackson difficulties, a hamstring injury that cost senior midfielder Connor Donahue most of the season and the unfortunate midseason terminations for Johns Hopkins transfer and junior midfielder Drew Supinski and senior LSM Sean Mayle.
Without standouts Connor Cannizzaro at attack and Christian Burgdorf in defense, many questioned how the Pioneers would weather the prominent absences. Despite these challenges, Denver displayed resilience.
Cannizzaro’s lefty protege, Ethan Walker, came on strong at the beginning of the season, fizzled midway and reignited his production during the postseason. The sophomore Peterborough, Ontario native notched a team-high 70 points on 48 goals and 22 assists. Perhaps the most threatening component of Denver’s offense was the indisputable chemistry from the shot precision by Walker and the incredible playmaking efforts from junior attack Austin French.
Denver’s midfield saw the emergence of freshman Teddy Sullivan. Sullivan, a Tuscon, Ariz. native, utilized his athletic build to complement his explosive speed as an end-to-end threat.
Colton Jackson has only excelled since his rookie season. The now, junior and Denver native took control of the top midfield line to set the tempo and perfect his abrasive long-distance shot.
Returning defenders Dylan Johnson and Dylan Gaines were vicious twin towers. Their intimidating size was enhanced by their intricate footwork and versatility. Sophomore Colin Squires united as the third counterpart that collectively, demonstrated the ideal balance of controlled aggressiveness employed by defensive coordinator John Orsen.
In cage for the Pioneers, sophomore Josh Matte earned the start from mid-March until the First Round matchup against Notre Dame where Alex Ready regained the helm. Ready experienced a slump early on and the Pioneers looked to their depth. Matte provided comfort and confidence for his teammates during the interim. When Ready regained confidence, Denver returned to having its acrobatic goalie.
Danny Logan was an overlooked success of this 2018 season. Logan was quieter with his production in contrast to his rookie season, but the sophomore midfielder is a multidimensional weapon. During the offseason, Logan focused on improving his weak hand to become ambidextrous. With virtually every faceoff, the Upper Arlington, Ohio native was flawless on the wings. Sized at 5-foot-11, 195-pounds, Logan’s athleticism is so pronounced he could make an impact at almost any position. Logan will likely be a faceoff man next season as he embodies the ideal mix of size, strength, and speed.
Denver has proven it wasn’t just a Cinderella Story clinching the 2015 championship and first national title outside of the eastern time zone in the history of men’s college lacrosse. DU has established itself as an unrelenting, iconic western force with a prosperous future ahead. Tierney and his staff have cultivated a winning culture composed of devoted, determined and diligent players who respect and are passionate about the sport of lacrosse.
Denver will encourage postseason participation in offensive coordinator, Matt Brown’s Colorado Collegiate Box Lacrosse League (CCBLL). Denver had a number of players participate last summer who all reaped the benefits of the added physicality and speed of box lacrosse that translated into their performances during field lacrosse.
The Pioneers face the challenge of filling the obvious void of Trevor Baptiste — not necessary by replacing or attempting to emulate Baptiste’s unprecedented success at the X — but rather through enhancing their already dominant wing play and defense. A long-pole middie is another vacated spot, but the depth of the 2018 midfield provides some promising potential candidates in; Danny Logan, Jon Ober, Colin Squires, Brett Greenlee or Michael Cox.
Denver will welcome an incredibly talented 10-man freshman class in the fall. The rising seniors have already displayed influential leadership and are a tight-knit class full of assortment, primed for welcoming new faces into the lineup.
The 2018 season was not a failure by any means for Denver. Through the highs and the lows, the season serves as stepping stone for the unfolding and undeniable successes yet to come.