February 4, 2014

#LMRanks: No. 4 Denver Pioneers (MD1)

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive | College Preview 2014

Canadian Wes Berg is a first-team All-American candidate heading into his junior season. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Previous: No. 5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Vitals

2013 Record: 14-5 (6-1 ECAC)
Coach: Bill Tierney (5th year)
Record at Denver: 50-20

Power Ratings (scale of 1-5)

Offense: 5
Defense: 4
Goalkeeping:
4
Faceoff: 2

Top Returner

A Wes Berg (Jr.)
Berg had 12 goals in the first two rounds of last year's NCAA tournament before being shut out in the semifinal against Syracuse.

X-Factor

A Zach Miller (Fr.)
Miller, the latest product from the Hill Academy (Ontario), is too good to keep off the field as freshman. The lefty will bring a new dimension to Denver's already creative offense.

Tournament Trend

2009 DNQ
2010 First Round
2011 Semifinals
2012 Quarterfinals
2013 Semifinals

What's New?

Denver is in the Big East conference for the first time, after leaving the ECAC as part of the conference realignment merry-go-round. The Pioneers are the favorite to win their new league.

Telling Number

3
Seasons since Denver last failed to make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament. That was in 2010, when the Pioneers lost to a Kevin Crowley-led Stony Brook team. Tierney has since built Denver into a national power with two final four appearances sandwiching a quarterfinal appearance in 2012.

Behind Enemy Lines

What rival coaches say
"When isn't a Tierney team ready to play? Berg and Noble are amongst national elite players who change games... Losing six of the top nine point scorers, as well as Chase Carraro at the faceoff X will take its toll, but with how well those guys are coached offensively, new players will step up over time. They return most of their defense and both goalies, so we may see lower scores but this is going to be a pretty good team. They will drop some games early but will win the Big East and do damage at the end."

"What happened to Berg in semifinals? Can they defend or face off?... Graduate a ton in the midfield – who replaces that. Very good team scheme on offense. Good in the goal... Offensively, losing Flint, Carraro, and Law will hurt but Berg and Noble is not a bad place to start and throw someone like Zach Miller in the mix along with the proven results of Matt Brown's system and Denver will be pretty well off heading into this season."

"It's more of the modern-day lacrosse. It's where most teams are trying to get to. They play a north-of-the-border style of offense combined with a very disciplined, low-risk style of defense."

— One rival coach

"Defensively this team improved as the year went on, but can they continue to make strides because some offenses had their way with them last season... The goalie situation is an interesting one as LaPlante and Faus are two top flight goaltenders, but does the two goalie system continue to work for them throughout the season or does it come back to bite them like it may have done in the national semifinal last year?"

"Losing Carraro at the faceoff X will hurt. Do they use Miller at the faceoff X in a similar type role that Carraro played?... Berg and Noble may be as good of a 1-2 combination as there is in the country. Noble was banged up for much of last year and it showed with his play but him alongside Berg will be very dangerous to game plan for."

"The miracle in Indianapolis. Down 6-0 in the first quarter, how did the Pioneers keep believing? Their head coach was directly responsible for one of those early goals (subbing a goalie on the fly?). But that is the beauty of the best coach ever in Division I. Bill Tierney has his men so well prepared that nothing fazes them. It is a lot more fun to watch Tierney teams these days — the West Coast offense moniker could be used to define their style out in Colorado. Gunslingers abound with the likes of Wes Berg (56 goals in 2013) and Eric Adamson (27 goals)."

"No Law and Flint this year to run the innovative Pioneers offense. Wes Berg continues his tremendous career and should be a finalist for player of the year. The Pioneers also have the all-time best coach at the helm. Is this the year the national championship heads west?"

"I think balance comes to mind. They have tremendous balance. It's obvious to describe them as an extremely well-coached team. When you have a guy leading the program who's won six national championships and hit the ground running, that's no easy task. He had some really talented young men to work with , but to put it together is an impressive feat. It's more of the modern-day lacrosse. It's where most teams are trying to get to. They play a north-of-the-border style of offense combined with a very disciplined, low-risk style of defense, and the goalies they have are very stingy. They'll be as good as anyone this year. That's going to be a national championship contender."

2013 Recap

In a Nutshell: After starting the year with a stunning 14-12 come-from-behind win over Duke, the Pioneers embarked on a memorable and season that included their first No. 1 national ranking and a thrilling roller-coaster ride to their second semifinal appearance in three seasons in the NCAA tournament. They pushed past Albany in a high-scoring NCAA first-round game, and came back against North Carolina in the quarterfinals, before falling to Syracuse in the final four in Philadelphia.

High Point: It's got to be Denver's season-opening, 14-12, win over Duke in snowflakes in Durham, N.C. The Pioneers outscored Duke 7-0 in a key third quarter. Ryan LaPlante went the distance and made a career-high 18 saves while attackman Eric Adamson had a coming-out party with five goals.

Low Point: Denver had just claimed its first No. 1 ranking in program history when ECAC foe Fairfield came to Peter Barton Stadium and knocked off the Pioneers, 10-9 in overtime. Denver beat Fairfield later, 10-8, in the semifinals of the ECAC post-season tournament.

2014 Preview

Best Case: Denver's offense, coordinated by Matt Brown and led by Berg, Miller and Jeremy Noble, picks up where it left off despite the losses of Eric Law, Cam Flint and Chase Carraro. Replacing Carraro, as well as Denver's backup faceoff man last year, might be the Pioneers biggest challenge, but they overcome it just enough. Denver's goalie platoon of LaPlante, a junior and the senior Jamie Faus works itself out as the staff takes a play-it-by-ear approach in net. Denver lands in its third final four in four seasons and reaches the title game.

Worst Case: It's hard to imagine Denver's offense slowing considerably, even with its graduation losses. The Pioneers have two capable X-attackman in Hartford transfer Jack Bobzien and the ambidextrous Eric Adamson and with finishers like Berg and Miller in place, defenses should be concerned. The only thing that could hold Denver back is faceoff and goalie uncertainty. The latter has more to do with managing who is between the pipes than necessarily the talent in net once the decision is made. LaPlante and Faus are both solid, but can a two-goalie system continue to work?

Self-Examination: Bill Tierney on...

G Ryan LaPlante (Jr.) and G Jamie Faus (Sr.)
"Ryan LaPlante was a little bit banged up in the fall. It was a little bit more of Jamie Faus' fall. He's a senior and he's come back and really dialed in, in great shape and doing everything it takes. We also know we have two big-time goalies who have been willing to forgo individual accolades for the good of the team. We really felt like it was very successful with splitting time. We're going to have to see on that one. It could be that we split a lot of the year. Some games one guy might be hotter and we'll have to take it one step at a time and see what happens each week. We have two great ones. If it was any other position they'd both be starters, why don't we play them both? It worked out really well."

A Jack Bobzien (So.)
"He was banged up in high school [at Arapahoe (Colo.) High] so we really didn't get a great read on him. To Hartford's credit, they did. He went there and had a great year. As we're learning a little bit, every style is different. He didn't quite play that X-behind spot like Matt Brown likes to use him. With the graduation of Eric Law, we thought that he would be a good fit there. We started him there in the fall and he's picking it up pretty quickly. If not, we have other guys like Eric Adamson. One of the keys to that position is being pretty much two-handed. But we think he's going to be the guy. He wanted to come back home. We lose some, we get some, like everybody else. It's more of a revolving door now with the transfers because a lot of them make decisions either at a young age, or something like this, where it just didn't work out the first year."

A Wes Berg (Jr.)
"We have to think about what a great midfielder he is, too. We feel like we have a new guy in Tyler Pace, who is another Canadian kid, who could be interchangeable with Wes. So, for instance, if we wanted to run Wes at the midfield, Tyler could certainly play that righty spot. But Wes is that guy. He was banged up all fall. He didn't played at all. He's healthy now, and he'll get back going and in game shape very quickly."

Lacrosse Magazine will continue its 2014 college lacrosse preview throughout January and into February, with team-by-team breakdowns of the top teams in NCAA Division I, II and III men's and women's lacrosse. Follow the countdown at LaxMagazine.com/LMRanks and on twitter at #LMRanks.


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