Season Preview (MD1): No. 5 Denver
Defensive guru Bill Tierney is starting a unit that
collectively has zero collegiate starts in front of sophomore
goalie Jamie Faus. But, oh, that offense.
Denver is the main character in a classic hunters-become-the-hunted story. Last year, in head coach Bill Tierney’s second season leading the Pioneers, the program reached all types of firsts, culminating with its first final four appearance.
Now what happens?
“Our guys had to learn what it’s like to have a target on their back,” Tierney said, talking about the Pioneers’ 19-11 scrimmage loss to Harvard at the San Francisco Lacrosse Classic in October. “We learned a great lesson with that. That everybody is going to be out to get you and you better be ready.”
Opponents should be better prepared for this Denver group. Most of the offense, led by senior attackman and national player of the year candidate Mark Matthews, is back. So are faceoff man Chase Carraro and goalie Jamie Faus, who had an impressive freshman season (.557 save percentage, 8.55 goals against average) in helping the Pioneers win the ECAC, host a first-round NCAA tournament home game and make a historic run to the national semifinals.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Matthews scored 46 goals last year and 38 the season before that. He will be the focal point on offense. Playing off him is senior attackman Alex Demopoulos, who can feed, score and capitalize on opportunities presented when defenses show Matthews too much attention. Junior Eric Law will be the Pioneers’ third attackman. The midfield returns the Canadian duo of Cameron Flint and Jeremy Noble, plus Carraro.
If you’re looking for a sleeper, watch Denver’s second midfield line, which will include freshman Wes Berg, a member of the Canadian U19 team and a former box lacrosse teammate of Matthews in Coquitlam, British Columbia. “Nobody knows about him,” Tierney said, “but he’s as good a freshman as I’ve ever had — a stud.”
The offense will be run-and-gun, not just because of the personnel returning, but also to mask deficiencies that will come with an inexperienced defense relying on freshmen.
“We’re going to have to outscore some teams,”
Tierney said. “We’re going to be pushing the ball,
pushing it hard and taking chances.”
Defensive personnel shifted dramatically from the fall ball game against Harvard, in which mostly upperclassmen started, to the next scrimmage against the MLL’s Denver Outlaws, which featured a younger lineup and a 17-13 win.
Carson Cannon, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman defenseman from Minnesota, has a chance to start. Also in the mix is Drew Babb, listed as a redshirt freshman after sitting out two seasons while battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and sophomore Matt Kramer, who has battled injuries in his career.
Two freshmen, Mike Riis and Nick Gorman, are at long pole, and sophomore Harley Brown has moved from defense to short-stick midfield. Among the starting unit for the Pioneers at Champion Challenge, when they forced overtime in a scrimmage against Team USA, none of the starters in front of Faus had started a collegiate game.
“If we can pull this thing together defensively — it might take a few games — but if we can, I think we can be pretty good,” Tierney said.
Tierney said something similar after the Pioneers beat Duke last April in a neutral site game on Long Island. That win was among several impressive feats during the 2011 breakout season. When it all ended with a loss to Virginia in the national semifinals in Baltimore, the disappointed group trudged to the visitors’ locker room at M&T Bank Stadium. Emotions swirled. The hunt for the big-time was over.
Or was it just beginning?
“The road getting there was unbelievable,” Matthews said, “but I’m sure everybody would have liked better results. There’s nothing else we can do now except move on to this year.”
This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Gators' team page.