Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
The growth of lacrosse out west has cultivated a unique rivalry between the No. 8 Denver Pioneers and Air Force Falcons. Separated by an hour-bus ride, Colorado’s only Division l men’s programs have embraced a matchup that has seen everything from blizzardous conditions, NCAA tournament action, to one-goal games. It’s only fitting that both teams open their respective 2019 campaigns with an in-state showdown.
“We’re just excited to play a game, it’s been a long preseason,” senior captain Dylan Johnson said. “We’re playing an Air Force team that we haven’t seen before and we don’t know much about. It’ll be a good game for us because we have to go out and play the game that we play and figure it out as we go. I think it’ll be really good for our team.”
Level of Uncertainty
Traditionally, both sides enter the contest with a thorough understanding of what is to be expected. This season presents the challenge of internal unknowns and question marks surrounding their opponent. The Falcons underwent a coaching change as Bill Wilson was promoted to head coach after serving as the interim head coach last season. Air Force also added Colorado lacrosse legend John Grant Jr. to their staff as offensive coordinator.
The projected lineup that Denver will face is relatively new. Last year’s contest featured a lineup that excluded at least 11 Air Force players who were sidelined due Academy violations and injuries obstructed a few others. The Falcons are fresh-faced with an 11-man freshmen class.
“As much as we do think we know them and they think they know us and nobody having any scout movies on each other because nobody has played a game yet, I think it’s going to be a feeling out process,” Denver head coach Bill Tierney said. “As strange as that seems for playing the one team that’s closest to us as far as geography goes and the team that we’ve played every year – sometimes twice a year – I think we’re in a little more of a ‘wonder what’s happening mode’ than normally.”
Familiarity at the X
The faceoff circle, in particular, stands out as the primary area that DU and AFA are confident in what to expect. Air Force will be Denver’s first adversary in the post-Trevor Baptiste era. The Falcons return senior faceoff specialist Trent Harper who held Baptiste to 50% during last season’s opener amidst frigid whiteout conditions. Freshman Brett Boos, a Parker, Colorado native, will get his first career look at the faceoff for the Pioneers.
“Trent is very, very good.” coach Tierney said. “We can’t bemoan everything when it comes to facing off. We’ve been very blessed over the past four years. But I can tell you Brett has done a very good job at our scrimmages. We feel like we have the right wing guys in place, but who knows? [Senior defenseman] Dylan Gaines said in an interview this week [that] we’re going to play more defense than we have in the past. That’s just the way it is.”
Fortunately, the Pioneers expect the 80-second shot clock to avail the potential lack of faceoff wins.
“With the new shot clock rule, it doesn’t negate that but it mitigates that,” coach Tierney said. “You’re going to play more defense because you’re going to lose more faceoffs, but you’re not going to play more defense because of the time constraint.”
More than a Rivalry
Despite both sides feeling less versed on the facade of one another, there is a high level of mutual respect.
“For us, first and foremost, to have a top-five or top-ten program in the state of Colorado, it’s wonderful to be able to compete against Denver,” Air Force head coach Bill Wilson said. “As a top-five program in the country, they’re a really good measuring stick for us. We want to challenge our guys in our program by trying to play the best in the country. We see Denver as one of those programs.”
Matchups against military academies have always been a staple on the schedules of programs under coach Tierney, who implements a culture reflective of those valued in the military like commitment, integrity, and respect.
“I don’t mean to get real philosophical but the respect we have for young men who go to places like Air Force is second to none,” coach Tierney said. “Kids that have to do so much more than everyone else, we know that and we respect that. Those kinds of character strengths come out on the field. There’s got to be that respect. It’s an important game for us. It’s an important game for them. It’s going to be a battle.”
Six Peter Barton Appearances
The Pioneers 2019 slate features just six regular season home games at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. It’s a reality the program has accepted in turn for its competitive ambitions.
“It’s just a matter of knowing that if we want to be who we say we want to be,” coach Tierney said. “Thankfully, DU and our athletic administration support us in a way that allows us to be who we want to be — and that’s a nationally renowned program. With that goes the odd-factor that we can’t just get in a bus and drive to 20-some opponents like I used to be able to do at Princeton. Here, it’s a flight. If we want to be renowned and if we want to play a national schedule we know we’re going to be on the road a lot.”
The sacrifice of swapping the comfort of home turf in exchange a predominantly road schedule is the caliber of opponents Denver will face. The coaching staff is cognizant that in order to be a consistent, competitive national contender, the team must be challenged early and challenged often.
“The flip side of this is, we could get other teams to come out here,” coach Tierney said. “Thankfully, Notre Dame and Ohio State who are two national powers agree to home-and-home games. The two that jump obviously right now out are [North] Carolina and Duke. But it is what it is. I’d rather play them away than play lesser teams at home every year. We don’t even talk about it to our players. They don’t worry about it.
“It’s not going to change. We’re just going to keep moving forward and keep trying to be a team that is playing for a national championship at the end of every year.”
Denver and Air Force embark on their 2019 seasons at 1 p.m. Saturday at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. Tickets are still available.