Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
It’s hard to imagine that just the second game of the season could present any long-term implications, but men’s lacrosse is unique in that particular way. With a regular season slate of just 13 to 15 games, the top ten clash between the #5 Denver Pioneers and the #8 Duke Blue Devils this Saturday is a taste of May competition in February. The result and individual performances become a baseline for later reflection.
“This is an amazing matchup because as crazy as it sounds, it’s February 16 and it’s a huge game,” Denver head coach Bill Tierney said. “It’s not devastating if you lose it, but for the winner, you know the other team is going to do well. With the way they’ve figured out this tournament, big wins are big wins. They don’t care if it’s in January or if it’s in May.”
No. 5/6 Denver enters the matchup coming off of an 11-4 win over in-state rival Air Force. No. 8/10 Duke bounced back last Saturday with a 15-8 win over Jacksonville after getting upset 13-9 by High Point on Feb. 6.
Consistency Amidst Change
The stakes are considerably higher provided the leverage that this matchup holds. Duke claimed last year’s meeting 15-12, highlighted by seven unanswered fourth-quarter goals. It was a quarter that still burns in the back of Denver’s minds.
“There were a lot of takeaways from that game and from that fourth quarter,” coach Tierney said. “We know this one will be a battle. Each year is different [with Duke], but you know you’re always going to get an amazing game.”
Both teams are embracing newly minted identities. The Blue Devils are looking to reassert their dominance after finishing as the 2018 runner-up to Yale. Duke graduated a crucial staple from its explosive offense in 113-points scorer Justin Guterding. Similarly, The Pioneers are navigating its post-Trevor Baptiste era at the X. Even with the vacancies of two all-time greats, you don’t become a western powerhouse or historic dynasty without replenishing such talent.
“They’re a different team,” coach Tierney said. “Everything people say about us without Trevor, we say about them without Guterding. The truth of the matter is you have your Brett Boos [Denver FOGO] and your Joe Robertsons [Duke attackman]. These aren’t teams that are good just once every four years.”
Always Something to Improve
Denver walked away with its first win of the season over Air Force and displayed an excellent defensive effort. But even with the notables of Brett Boos finishing 15-for-19 in his collegiate debut at the X, senior netminder Alex Ready making nine saves on 13 shots and freshman Ellis Geis scoring a hat trick as he replaced Austin French [out with an upper-body injury] at attack, Coach Tierney still demands more from his team.
“I’m never accepting of just a win,” coach Tierney said. “My goal as a coach is to get us as mentally and physically ready to be perfect someday. We played a really good team in Air Force — you’re going to see them win some games — and we played a really good game…But if anybody would have said before the game that you’re going to get one goal out of Ethan Walker and one goal out of Colton Jackson I would have said we were going to lose. Obviously, we didn’t. But the concern came with 49 shots and only 11 goals. That’s not good enough. That’s unacceptable. We’ve got to change that.”
What It Takes
The challenges in this matchup are intensified between two potent offenses which are anchored by veteran defenses.
Denver’s offense is spearheaded by Ethan Walker who had one of the best games of his career against Duke last year when he put on a clinic with six goals. The lefty attackman is known for his shifty face dodge, slippery footwork and lethal shot, but he’s become a player teams are willing to bulk coverage on.
“His two favorite words this year are going to be hockey assists. Second assists,” coach Tierney said.
Fortunately, Walker is a natural-born playmaker. The challenge he’ll likely face just becomes a facet within his evolving game. While replicating his performance against Duke from last season is not out of the question, the junior has already begun to marshal alternative approaches.
“I just want to do everything I can to help and support this offense,” Walker said. “I want to be a leader on and off the field. When we’re in our offensive setting off of their double team if they’re blocking off, then coach Brown and I have come up with a few solutions where I can still be effective. Even if I’m not touching the ball as much as I want to or would like to, there’s a few things to keep in mind. I’ll just have to find other ways to still make an impact.”
Players to Watch
Senior Cade van Raaphorst and junior J.T. Giles at close defense – Both were nominated as preseason (second team) All-Americans. The duo combined for 45 forced turnovers last season and return crucial leadership that helped advance the Blue Devils to college lacrosse’s grandest stage.
Junior Brian Smyth and sophomore Joe Stein at faceoff – The Blue Devils return depth at the faceoff. The faceoff tandem combined to win 53 faceoffs last season. Brian Smyth has taken 75 faceoffs this season and boasts a win percentage of 65-percent.
Joe Robertson at attack – The protege of Justin Guterding looks to append upon his remarkable 48-goal rookie season. The sophomore has obtained more responsibility in the Duke offense. The Virginia product has 12 points and nine goals through three games this season.
Alex Simmons at midfield – The freshman Ontario native blasted a highlight reel worthy goal on his first career goal against Air Force and added five shots. The coaches have high expectations for him this season and were pleased with his debut on Saturday.
— TLN (@LacrosseNetwork) February 13, 2019
Matt Neufeldt at long stick midfield – The redshirt senior transfer from Maryland thrives in high-pressure situations and is well-versed against Duke. In his Pioneer debut, the Naperville Illinois native picked up three ground balls and forced one turnover.
Jack Hannah at midfield – The sophomore started in Denver’s first midfield line alongside Colton Jackson and Ted Sullivan. Hannah recorded a team-high (tied with Colin Rutan) four points in the opener, scoring one goal and dishing out three helpers.
Faceoff in Durham is scheduled for 9 a.m. M.T. and will be televised on ESPN+.