Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 2 Denver (Men)
The Pioneers finally broke through with a national title last year, after several trips to the final four under coach Bill Tierney. They are not running away from talk of a repeat this spring.
Denver at a Glance
2015 Record: 17-2
3 Big Things
1. Denver won't hide from repeat talk.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Denver’s offensive philosophy centers on getting high-quality chances. Every team wants to get them, but the Pioneers shooting percentages bear out that they tend to put themselves in better positions, and definitely convert more efficiently than just about everyone else. The four highest individual returners in the category among regular starters: Colin Woolford (38.4), Zach Miller (37.1), Connor Cannizzaro (35.6) and Jack Bobzien (35.1).
The Pioneers won one for the West. Now how about two? "It's funny. Last year, when we started the season, we tried not to avoid the preseason No. 1 thing. We looked it in the eye. We're not going to avoid trying to repeat as national champs," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "It's hard. There's a lot to think about. You have to make sure you keep kids remembering how hard they worked, and work, and how lucky we were. With all that in mind, it's a new team and looking for some new leadership. But as I've been saying a lot, 'It's better to hear congratulations than nice try.' We'll see what happens."
2. The Beast is back.
Faceoff man Trevor Baptiste was the breakout player of 2015. Denver plucked away Baptiste, who originally committed to Division III Franklin & Marshall, late in the recruiting process. All the freshman did was lead Division I in faceoff win percentage. The Pioneers needed him, too, winning games too close for comfort at times during the regular season. "Having the ball to start 70 percent of the time doesn't hurt," Tierney said. "He's special. We found out toward the end of the year some of the tactics guys are going to use. We're working on protecting ourselves from that. He's a great kid, strong and he'll battle." And he's got three seasons ahead of him.
3. Expect more tinkering on offense.
Anyone who has paid close attention to a Denver game knows the Pioneers like to rotate players between midfield and attack regularly. Expect more of the same this year. With Tewaaraton finalist and NCAA championship MVP Wes Berg gone, Zach Miller — for whom the final play in Denver's NCAA semifinal overtime win against Notre Dame was called (Berg scored the clincher) — figures to become more of a focal point. Miller can get it done from attack or midfield and has averaged 59 points over his first two seasons. Jack Bobzien and even Connor Cannizzaro boast the same versatility. The starting lineup likely will be determined on who the Pioneers like best in the midfield, or if having a talented freshmen like Nate Marano — who scored four goals in a scrimmage against Johns Hopkins on Saturday — or Austin French on the field is too valuable a play to bypass. Jeremy Bosher, Brendan Bomberry and Colton Jackson figure to play significant roles in the offense as well.
Alex Ready (Fr.)
* returning starters
He was ACC Rookie of the Year at Maryland, then transferred to Denver, where he set the program record for points in a season with 90. He's got speed and sizzle and sets things up and the tone for Denver's bevy of other offensive options.
Denver has options on who to play at attack and midfield. French, a California native, is one of them. "He has a shot at starting at attack," coach Bill Tierney said. "If not, he'll play a lot." French was a starting safety for San Ramon Valley (Calif.) football team in high school.
Offensive assistant Matt Brown says Pace has some future coach in him. He can execute, too, with 22 goals and 27 assists last season. Finished fourth on the team in points.
Biggest Question Mark
Ryan LaPlante graduated, leaving the Pioneers' most glaring personnel hole between the pipes. Freshman Alex Ready, a lefty from Lancaster, Pa., has the inside track, but there are others pushing him, and there is always some adjustment to the Division I level for freshman goalies.
Connor Cannizzaro set the Denver program record for points in a season in his first year with the Pioneers. (Marc Piscotty)
What rival coaches say about the Pioneers
"The chosen one realized that the game was changing. The growth of the game of lacrosse meant that the private/prep schools would no longer have a stranglehold on the elite players. Future talent would come from public high school and Canada where SAT scores would not match the excellence seen in the player. So Tierney took a chance, a calculated one albeit, and turned a good program — let's not forget how much Jamie Munro had done in his 10 years out there — into the best."
"Loaded again. Younger Cannizzaro is simply this: the best in the nation. My money is on him to win the Tewaaraton."
"Tough to find a weakness outside of replacing LaPlante. He was so big for them down the stretch. Baptiste is the best in the game. You can't cover Cannizarro. Miller will be a load to handle as well. Enough said."
"Lost a few key pieces to their championship puzzle but they still return some incredible talent including the nation's best faceoff man and arguably one of the country's best players in his second year in the Pioneer offensive system. Biggest question with this team will probably be in the goal but when you win over 65 percent of your faceoffs that usually takes a ton of pressure off your goalie."
"They have the key to final four success, ability to score in half field and best faceoff guy in the country. Biggest, and maybe only, issue may be 'year after' syndrome."
"Their mojo is phenomenal. Phenomenal coaching staff. Bill is obviously a Hall of Fame coach, but Matt Brown is an offensive magician. They have this hybrid field/box game going and with the new rules and bigger box have really been able to take advantage of that. They lose some good players, but have some terrific players coming back. I just think they're going to be there forever."
"They're obviously extremely talented, so well-coached and explosive offensively. They do a tremendous job of maintaining possession. Time of possession is key for them. It takes a lot of pressure off their defense, and offensively they're as good as anybody in the country. Of course, having the most dominant faceoff guy doesn't hurt."
Out of three captains who are juniors: Pace and defenseman Christian Burgdorf. Bobzien, a senior, is the third. Burgdorf has started all 37 games he's been able in first two seasons. He's a two-time All-American and reigning Big East defenseman of the year.
13 @ Air Force
27 Sacred Heart
* at Kennesaw State, Ga.
March 13 at Notre Dame
The preseason Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country meet in South Bend. The Western lacrosse rivals played into overtime twice last year, with the Pioneers taking the win the final four.
What's new is old.
Former Denver midfielder Jeremy Noble, a 2014 captain and All-American, is now part of the Pioneers coaching staff as a volunteer assistant, replacing Trevor Tierney. Also new: a neutral-site game on March 26 in Texas against Penn State.
With the parts it has back and talent waiting to step in where needed, there’s no reason to expect Denver won’t make the final four again. If the goaltending works out, even better.
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