A 5-4 Denver Lacrosse team enters Peter Barton Stadium Saturday to face the Big EAST preseason favorite, Georgetown Hoyas (7-1) in their first conference game of the season. The Pioneers are in an unfamiliar position, picked second in the Big EAST preseason poll to the Hoyas, looking in the mirror and trying to figure out their identity.
Head coach Bill Tierney discussed the current state of Denver lacrosse, “When we lost to Yale (three weeks ago), a lot of teams that are used to not being 3-4 start pointing fingers, blaming each other, all of that other stuff. We implored upon the guys to stick together, and we really didn’t have to do that. They were sticking together.” After the Yale loss at Peter Barton, the Pioneers have reeled off wins against Ohio State on the road and Towson at home.
Since becoming a member of the BIG EAST, Denver has dominated the regular season, winning the regular-season title every year from 2015 through 2021 (2020 was canceled) and going undefeated for six straight seasons until Villanova stopped the regular season run in April 2019. However, during the last five post-seasons of BIG EAST tournament play, Marquette won twice and Georgetown has owned DU in the last three. While Denver remains a premier lacrosse program, are they still the premier lacrosse program in the BIG EAST?
Before their recent two-game winning streak, Denver was under .500 and falling in the national rankings. Said Tierney after the Yale loss, “For the first time in a long time, we’re outside the Top 20. We never talked about that, just like we never talked about it when we were No. 1, 2, 3 or 4.”
The end of Denver’s conference invincibility can be traced to 2016-2017 when Marquette knocked Denver out of the BIG EAST Tournament. Early exits from the NCAA tournaments followed. The introduction of the shot clock during the 2020-21 season seemed to further stymie Denver’s offensive dominance. Surprisingly, it was assumed an offensive genius like assistant head coach Matt Brown, steeped in box lacrosse, would have a scheme where his players would thrive in an era where they were forced to operate in tight spaces under duress. The steady flow of dominant Canadian lacrosse players to University & Evans has regressed to a trickle as well. The last dangerous player from north of the border to don crimson & gold was Canadian Ethan Walker.
Did DU’s dominant faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste who graduated in 2018 mask some underlying issues? Perhaps it was the inability to recruit dominant netminders after the graduation of star Ryan LaPlante. Maybe Colorado prep talent has fallen off a bit and possibly recruiting in general. Or, frankly, maybe BIG EAST coaches and players have caught up to DU excellence? The answers are not clear and it is likely some combination of all these things.
By all accounts, both Head Coach Bill Tierney and Matt Brown are burning the midnight oil and looking for answers. And, no doubt DU has lost a number of games the past five years that could have gone either way. But Denver finds themselves in an unusual position heading into Saturday’s game against Georgetown – as the underdog – at their own home field.
“What I have learned is that we’re a resilient group,” Denver coach Bill Tierney said. “We’re still pretty erratic. We still make the same mistakes we made in the first week, but I think our trajectory is heading in the right direction.”
Denver faces Georgetown Saturday, April 2nd at 12:00 pm MT.
Top photo of Jack Hannah courtesy of Denver Athletics