Denver looks to take next step

After capturing its first ECAC title and making a push for the NCAA tournament -- falling in a tough 9-7 loss to Stony Brook in the first round -- the University of Denver is looking to make another impression as a lacrosse powerhouse entering this 2011 season. With a team full of experience and the hunger to win, coach Bill Tierney says he is confident the Pioneers will yet again be successful and will continue to establish itself as a competitive Division I lacrosse team.

From good to great

Opening the season against top-tier Syracuse on the road is a nonconference game that not many teams look forward to. But the importance of playing against a team that is above average is not lost on Tierney and his squad.

"I think as we move forward in our progress to go from a good DI lacrosse program, to a great one, you have to go in against teams like Syracuse. You find out very quickly where you stack up against those great programs," Tierney says. "Last year [in a game Denver lost 15-9] we found out about 23 seconds in where we stood with them, as they scored on us right away and went up 8-2 within a matter of minutes.

"Now we go in again this year, knowing what we are up against. The way I see it, you start out your season and even if it's not exactly the outcome or victory you hope for, all it can do is help you improve … looking ahead to the end and the playoffs, that's the ultimate goal."

In addition to the matchup with the Orange on Feb. 20, the Pioneers' schedule boasts contests with Vermont (Feb. 27), Notre Dame (March 12), and against reigning national champion Duke in April.

"[Playing Duke later in the year] is going to help out quite a bit," Tierney says. "By that time we will have an idea where we are as a team and we will have a league season. It's going to be a great event on Long Island and like I said, if you expect to be a good team and expect to be in the playoffs, you have to know what it is like to play these teams [like Duke, Notre Dame and Vermont]. Playing them in the season, you have a chance to evaluate yourself and see first where you are at, and work on it before it comes tourney time."

The dark horse

While attackmen Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews have headlined the Pioneers and their offense, leading the team in points (60) and goals (38) respectively, Tierney knows he has something special in his third starter, Todd Baxter.

"I think a guy who really tends to go unnoticed on this team is Todd [Baxter]," Tierney says. "Mark [Matthews] and Alex [Demopoulos] are great of course, but even if you were to ask them, they would say Todd's the glue. Those guys do what they do because Todd's is the guy that sets the screens, picks up the ground balls and does a lot of the grunt work with not as much of the glory.

"If it were hockey, he would be the second assist guy, the guy who got the play moving and is a main reason the goal happened in the first place. He's the energy, and he is doing a great job. I definitely expect to see some big things from him this season."

The senior attackman from Eden Prairie, Minn., enters his third season with the Pioneers after a year at Fairfield University. Grabbing 24 ground balls and tallying 23 points in the 2010 season weren't Baxter's only accomplishments. This past summer he was selected as one of 23 members on the England national lacrosse team that competed in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships in Manchester, England, finishing with a 2-3 record.

Freshman focus

Graduating 10 seniors from last year's ECAC championship team, including four d-poles and two veteran goaltenders, coach Tierney knows that Denver's backfield is where the most gaps need to be filled.

"Our biggest concern looking at the season right now is our defense," says Tierney. "That close defense is where we have the newer players, which will take a little adjusting for some of these guys now playing at the college level for the first time. One freshman I really think will step up for us on D is Harley Brown, who defensively started for us in the fall.

"Guys like that, if they play their game and step it up just a notch they are certainly going to give us more depth in that backfield. A kid like Harley Brown brings athleticism and toughness. Between him and Jamie [Faus], they are the two freshmen that I am expecting to step up. If they can, that is going to be our biggest story for 2011."

Faus, a freshman out of Lakeville, Conn., will be battling for the starting position between the pipes and Tierney hopes he will be a "diaper dandy" for the Pioneers this year.

"In my opinion, it's tough being a goalie and I am thankful we have two very good ones [in Faus and incoming freshman, Erik Carter]. We are so deep offensively that in order for us to get ahead of the division we are going to really be looking at Faus to stay strong and help keep us in some of these games."

Home-field advantage

As the defending ECAC champions, Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium and the Pioneers will host to the ECAC tournament this year, hoping their 7-1 homefield record pushes them to a second title.

"We got excited about this last year when the league decided that the ECAC winner would host the tournament for lack of a neutral site," said Tierney. "We put it on the back burner as an ultimate goal and you set your goals and either you achieve them or don't and we worked hard enough to achieve them, and now we're hosting the ECAC tournament and we are thrilled with it.

"We are very comfortable at home and we know that other people have to do the traveling, which always factors in during tournament time. Of course first and foremost we know most importantly, we still have to make it to the top."

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