The men’s lacrosse team makes its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA quarterfinals this weekend, where it will face conference rival and top-seeded Loyola for the third time this season on Saturday in Annapolis, Md. at 12:30 p.m. MT.
The Pioneers (9-6) upset No. 8-seeded North Carolina 16-14 in a shootout at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill, N.C., last Saturday behind a pair of star performances from junior face-off specialist Chase Carraro and sophomore midfielder Jeremy Noble.
Noble was awarded game MVP honors after he finished with a career-high 10 points on three goals and seven assists, setting a new school record at the Division I level for points in a single game.
“At this time of the year, you need your best guys to step up, and I think everyone did” said head coach Bill Tierney. “We have a ton of leaders on this team from Mark to Chase to Jeremy to Wesley; it’s across the board, and they led us on Saturday.”
Carraro engineered the high-scoring Pioneer offense, winning 22 of his 30 face-off attempts and dominating UNC’s R.G. Keenan throughout the game.
Senior captain Mark Matthews and freshman Wes Berg also enjoyed big nights as well, recording five and three goals, respectively.
The Pioneers scored 16 goals on 42 shots in the contest, shooting a game-high 50 percent in the third quarter and ending a five-goal run from the Tar Heels (11-6) when Noble assisted Matthews less than two minutes into the second half.
“We knew it was going to be a back-and-forth type of game with lots of scoring, and I thought we were ready for it,” said Tierney. “North Carolina deserves a lot of credit because they figured out our defensive game plan early on.”
Denver was up 6-2 early in the second quarter, but UNC stormed back with an impressive eight-goal quarter, taking a 10-8 lead into halftime.
They took their biggest lead of the game when junior attackman Marcus Holman found the back of the net 13 seconds into the second half, extending the lead to 11-8 before the Pioneers answered with a 5-1 run, regaining the lead.
Holman finished with a game-high six goals on the contest, tacking on two assists and ending his season with a total of 74 points.
The Pioneers survived three ties and five lead changes in the contest as well as a late run from the Tar Heels in the fourth quarter.
DU went up 15-12 when senior Alex Demopolous scored his second of two goals with 7:17 left to play in the fourth quarter. UNC cut the lead to two minutes later and then scored with 48 seconds left in the game, bringing the score to 15-14.
Sophomore defensenman John Zurlo caused a late turnover for the Pioneers and recorded the ensuing groundball as the Pioneers held on to win the contest.
“I thought ‘Here we go again’ when they scored late, because we had made mistakes similar to the ones that cost us games against Fairfield and Notre Dame,” said Tierney. “We kept telling them to make something happen and John Zurlo did just that, subbing in for Nick Gorman and stepping up for us at the most important moment in our season. And for a guy who hasn’t seen much of the field this season to come up huge at that moment, that’s what team is all about – guys never giving up at any moment.”
Goalie Steven Rastivo recorded 15 saves in the loss for the Tar Heels’ defense, but he didn’t have the answer for Denver’s high-octane offense, which scored at least three goals in each quarter of the game.
The Pioneers remain one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation, averaging 12.38 goals per game and winning 61.3 percent of their face-off attempts.
While DU has shown no problem scoring, the offense isn’t perfect, according to Tierney. Turnovers have troubled the Pioneers throughout the season, especially late in games. Against UNC, the team committed 11 of its 15 turnovers of the contest in the second half.
“We play such a fast style on offense that turnovers are expected, but they are still very frustrating to us, especially when you’re trying to close games out,” said Tierney. “What we must limit is our turnovers on defense, where our young guys are still learning.”
If Denver wants to continue advancing this postseason, they will have to limit their mistakes against a Loyola team that specializes in making their opponents pay for the errors.
In their previous two contests against DU, the Greyhounds have racked up a combined 28 caused turnovers, while limiting themselves to half that number.
The last time the teams met, the Greyhounds (15-1) won a thrilling contest in the semifinals of the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s postseason tournament, outlasting the Pioneers 14-13 in overtime when Scott Ratliff scooped a ground ball off the opening face-off and ran down the field to beat freshman goalie Ryan LaPlante eight seconds into the period.
Despite suffering their sixth loss of the season in that game, the Pioneers were able to qualify for a postseason berth, earning one of the NCAA tournament’s at-large bids.
Tierney, a six-time national champion coach, believes the key to this weekend’s rematch is the midfield, where Loyola’s transition offense is lethal with a plethora of short-stick and long-pole midfielders.
“They really make you pay for turnovers, so obviously we want to limit those, but most importantly, we can’t allow their midfielders to cause a lot of the same problems they have in the previous two games,” said Tierney. “We know these guys, so preparing for them this week will be a lot different then most weeks in the playoffs.”
He expects goaltending to be a huge component, as LaPlante goes head-to-head with Loyola’s Jack Runkel for the third time.
LaPlante is 5-4 in the net this season since taking over in the cage for the injured Jamie Faus. He has a 52.9 save percentage, stopping 100 shots on the season and averaging 9.92 goals allowed per game.
The freshman’s top accomplishments are his pair of victories against ACC opponents, beating No. 5/6-ranked UNC last weekend and edging then-No. 3 Duke 15-9 on April 27.
LaPlante will have to stop one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses, as the Greyhounds average 12.63 goals a game, while allowing only 7.47 goals on the other end of the field, which is in the top five in the country.
In addition, Loyola is a flawless team in their transition offense and defense . The team posts above a 91 percent clear percentage, while dominating in categories such as groundballs, turnovers and points off turnovers.
Denver will have to contain junior attackman Mike Sawyer, one of the nation’s five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, who enters the game with 50 goals and eight assists.
They will also have to keep an eye on Ratliff, who leads the team with 74 ground balls and 37 caused turnovers. Redshirt senior Eric Lusby, junior Davis Butts and sophomore Justin Ward all have more than 30 points on the season, while senior Dylan Grimm and junior Reid Acton are the team’s enforcers on the defensive end.
If the team wants to advance to its second consecutive Final Four appearance, they will have to outlast a team that has beaten them twice this season. Tierney believes a third opportunity doesn’t equate to a victory, but he acknowledges the positives of playing a familiar opponent this late in the season.
“We’re not going to have to spend any time introducing new things, which is a huge plus,” said Tierney. “They are who they are and we are who we are. What we must make sure is to improve as a team and not spend too much time focusing on them. When we lost to them earlier, we talked about this game as a possibility for us and now that it’s actually here, we need to learn from what we did wrong before and take that and keep improving.”