Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
One decade ago, Bill Tierney left the dynasty of a lacrosse program he had established at Princeton University to take over the helm for the University of Denver Pioneers. Among his ambitions of growing the sport, he was determined to create a powerhouse program out west.
Now, four years removed from Denver’s sole national title , the Pioneers enter this season eager for their second ring. But after missing Championship Weekend last season at the hands of Albany in an epic 15-13 battle, the general consensus was that the Pioneers would enter this season with a vengeful mentality.
“In one way I kind of go, ‘Whoa, was it that bad?’ But in another, I kind of smile,” Tierney said. “When your program is expected to be in Final Fours and they don’t, it’s looked upon as not a great season. I get that, that’s what I want. We’re all in with that. We use that as motivation.’
“The good thing about losing is it makes you want to win a lot more.”
And do they ever. The 2018 class were the final members of that 2015 title squad. The current 14-man senior class has endured their entire careers in pursuit of that second title. The 14 true seniors look to lead the fresh faces of a 19-man freshmen class back to Championship Weekend come May.
“Usually a strong senior class and a large freshmen class is a good combination,” coach Tierney said. “As long as you can get the freshmen that will crack the lineup to contribute.”
Denver returns veteran leadership across the field but is exceptionally evident within its defensive core. The Pioneers defense will field seniors Alex Ready in goal and defensemen Dylan Gaines, Dylan Johnson and junior Colin Squires.
“It’s huge,” defensive coordinator John Orsen said. “They have a lot of experience. They’ve been through every single lacrosse situation that you could possibly imagine. There’s not a scenario that they haven’t seen and that’s really important for the development of the whole team.”
Ready will receive the starting nod, but the jury remains out. Behind the senior netminder are four viable candidates among; Josh Matte, Tristan Wright, Cole French, and Kaleb Stroman.
“The beauty for him and I think the beauty for us that coincides is, that he’s got four guys pushing him and I mean really pushing him,” coach Tierney said. “We’re really comfortable with any one of the five of them. I think we owe it to Alex and I think he’ll respond with it being his senior year. He’s won a lot of great lacrosse games for us. We’ll give him the shot to win us some more.”
A Terp in the mix
The Pioneers gained a vital addition at the long pole position in Maryland transfer Matt Neufeldt which was vacated by 2018 graduate Sean Mayle. Neufeldt opted to use his final year of eligibility with DU after being named an All-American and winning a national title (2017) with the Terps.
“Neufeldt brings us another guy who has an amazing lacrosse savvy and IQ,” Tierney said. “We’re not going to try and change Matt into being a Denver Pioneer through-and-through. He’s got three months left, you know? But what we are going to do is use the things he brings to us. Knowing that Denver’s defense and Maryland’s defense aren’t that far off from each other. Knowing that he’s played in big games. We’ll try to indoctrinate him as best we can to how we play but also let the reins loose a bit with him.”
Tierney challenged Neufeldt to collect 50 ground balls this season, a feat that the Naperville, Illinois native already surpassed in each of his three prior seasons at Maryland. The significance of that challenge?
The X without Trevor Baptiste
The era of No. 9 dominating the faceoff for the Crimson and Gold is over. While Denver will likely rely on freshmen Brett Boos and Jackson Harvey to manage the X, the Pioneers are confident in their wing play. Hence the proposition for Neufeldt to pick up at least 50 ground balls.
“I have a sense that we’re actually a lot better than we thought we were,” coach Tierney said. I have a good feeling. I think Boos is going to surprise some people early on.”
Denver’s high-powered offense will feature new faces but maintain a consistent core. The Pioneers return quintessential playmakers in Ethan Walker and Austin French at attack and potent midfield threats in Colton Jackson and Teddy Sullivan. Walker is coming off of a 70-point campaign where he was just shy of 50 goals (48). Jackson enters his final season healthy and looking to build off of his 22-goal junior year.
“I like where we’re at,” offensive coordinator Matt Brown said. “We’re more mature as a group this year. I think the veteran piece of it is going to play a big part in our success.”
Junior captain Danny Logan has a dutiful, heavier weight on his shoulders this season. As a sophomore, the midfielder elevated his game to include an ambidextrous shot which he perfected during the offseason. The Pioneers relied heavily on Logan as a defensive middie and on the wing play and will continue to this year.
“I wish we had five of him,” coach Brown said. “He’s really our heartbeat this year. He’s a do-it-all, utility-knife type of guy. If you look at last year, we had him on the first line midfield to start the year. Then, we felt like we needed a little more on the defensive presence so we bump him down and he becomes the best d-middy in the country. We look at this year, he can do whatever you ask him to do. He can play on the wings. He can play on the first line. He could be a 20-goal scorer this year. He could be the best d-middie in the country. Heck, he could take faceoffs for you. He’s as tough as they come and he’s a fantastic leader.”
On the Lookout
- Quinn McKone – the senior played cemented the Pioneers second midfield line last season and played crucial minutes. McKone provides consistency and will be assuming a much-earned leadership role with his steady presence.
- Brett Greenlee – While the senior LSM has limited game experience, Greenlee is versatile in his ability to play up or down. Coach Orsen noted he’s a player they’re expecting to distribute big minutes to.
- Jack Hannah – the sophomore midfielder spent the summer playing in coach Brown’s summer box lacrosse league in Ohio. Hannah impressed the coaching staff with his physical and technical development during the offseason as he looks to have a breakout year.
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel implemented three changes that will take effect this season.
- 80-second shot clock
An 80-second shot clock which forces players to cross the midfield line in 20-seconds. The offensive team will then have 60-seconds to make a play on the net before possession is turned over.
- The Dive
The Panel approved plays around the crease, but the definition has drawn some question marks.
“We haven’t used the word in our practices yet,” Tierney said. “We haven’t even talked about it. The risk versus the reward is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The wording is so vague. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s implemented once we get some games going.”
Tierney explained that a better understanding of how the dive will be officiated once games are underway will determine their approach. He suspects the dive will be used more as a final effort to a winding shot clock.
- Reduced Substitution Box
“That’s been a huge awakening for us,” Tierney said. “Now it’s harder to cut off fast breaks. You used to be able to just run an attackman off 10-yards down from the midline on one side and then run a pole on the other side 10-yards down from the midline. You had 20-yards to cut off a break. Now, it’s down to 10-yards.”
Even after nearly 40-years of coaching experience, last season provided coach Tierney with valuable insight and lessons. With the sport continually growing and changing, Tierney and his staff are excited for the challenges and rewards in the coming season.
“Look, if you can’t learn in life then why live it?” coach Tierney said. “You can always learn. What’s great about coaching and sports is that is a really easy occupation to be humbled in.”