In one of the most anticipated games of the season, and certainly the most on each of the two team's schedules, the upset bug bit again in Division I lacrosse as the No.19 University of Denver Pioneers defeated their conference rival, the No.10-ranked University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 8-5.
The win also proved to the standing room only crowd of 2,376 yet again that Denver is unbeatable in the Mile High City, as they improved their record to a stellar 8-0 at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. Three of these wins have come against top-20 opponents.
Both Denver and Notre Dame came into the contest riding winning streaks of two and three games, respectively, and each desperately needed this important Great Western Lacrosse League (GWLL) victory in order to move toward attaining the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
Before the game, Denver Head Coach Jamie Munro described the mood that seemed to hang over the stadium as a “playoff atmosphere,” saying that he expected a tight one.
“These are two really good teams trying to get to the NCAA tournament,” said Munro. “We just need to come out flying and play our style of lacrosse. We'll pay attention to what they do, but our success will be based on what we do.”
The game started off with plenty of fast-paced transition play that created some early shots and scoring opportunities for both teams. However, time-and-time again in the first quarter, each goalie came up big for their team as Notre Dame netminder, sophomore Joey Kemp, matched wits with Denver starter, junior goalie Jeb Hollingsworth.
And while the game was as evenly matched as it can be, statistically speaking, Hollingsworth turned out to be the difference in the game, making five first quarter saves, on his way to an impressive 15.
Denver junior midfielder Ben Mullen put it bluntly, “He stood on his head.”
Asked about the game, Hollingsworth simply said that he had struggled earlier in the year against Bellarmine University under the lights, but felt really good tonight before the game. He also credited the defense in front of him for the win.
“We were just really pumped up,” Hollingsworth explained. “We came out on fire on defense and used a lot of pressure, and our talk has gotten progressively better throughout the year.”
With a mild wind blowing on an otherwise perfect Denver evening, the Pioneers got on the board first with under six minutes remaining in the first quarter on senior midfielder Adam Miller's feed to sophomore attackman Bret Koll in transition off of one of Notre Dame's eight failed clears.
Koll then assisted on a goal just over a minute later to sophomore midfielder Michael Goltra to put Denver up by two.
Koll dodged up field from the left wing, which created space for him to feed, before he delivered a perfect pass to Goltra who quick-sticked it in from the crease.
Carrying the momentum and dominating the time of possession, Denver scored their third of the night to put them up 3-0 when Goltra dodged down the wing on a lefty hitch before firing his second of the night past Kemp.
The second quarter was all Notre Dame though.
After they finally overcame Denver's severe pressure and got a settled possession on offense, sophomore midfielder Michael Podgajny dodged up field from around the goal and then fed freshman attackman Ryan Hoff who was waiting on the crease.
The Fighting Irish tallied their second goal, also off Hoff's stick, about five minutes later on another crease feed, this time from three-time All-American, senior attackman Pat Walsh.
Nine seconds later, junior midfielder Bill Liva scored the equalizer on a nifty runner over Hollingsworth's left shoulder off of a fast break from the face-off.
The remainder of the half was filled with hard rides that led to failed clears and turnovers in the neutral zone with the score deadlocked at 3-3, but Notre Dame undoubtedly had momentum on their side going into the third.
The Fighting Irish scored the first goal of the second half with about three minutes past in the third quarter when co-captain senior midfielder Drew Peters scored with senior attackman Brian Hubschamann getting the assist.
Denver then finally took advantage of their third man-up opportunity when junior attackman Brandon Barcus received a pass on the inside near the crease, waited to have the defense collapse on him, and then passed to line mate, fellow junior attackman, Ryan Zordani for a right-handed time-and-room rip from the right side of the box.
The fast-paced action continued, but neither team was able to grab the lead going into the fourth, 4-4.
Denver appeared to have the momentum back on their side though after the Fighting Irish failed to score on a two-man advantage after the Pioneers committed two penalties. Hollingsworth came up with a big-time save inside in the waning seconds of the penalties and quarter to keep the score tied.
On offense, Koll again made space with a dodge from the top of the key to the wing and launched another perfect pass to Zordani who sneaked to the offside from the `X' to put an easy lefty shot past Kemp on the crease.
After Notre Dame again failed to convert on a man-up opportunity, Zordani returned the favor to Barcus with an assist on Barcus' acrobatic diving goal to put Denver up 6-4 with under nine minutes remaining in the game.
Denver senior midfielder Geoff Snider then scored just six seconds later off of a face-off win, one of only four he had on the night, before rocketing a right-handed leaner home.
Notre Dame got an unassisted goal from Walsh on a one-on-one with Hollingsworth off a turnover at the midline by Denver, to bring the score to 7-5, but Denver senior midfielder Adam Goodwin sealed the game two minutes later.
Goodwin - last week's GWLL player of the week for his 10-point (8, 2) output against Bellarmine and Quinnipiac last weekend - dodged down the left wing right-handed, rolled back to go top-side and beat his defender before blasting a lefty runner past Kemp.
Denver then gained possession of the ball for the vast majority of the remaining two minutes and with some wisely used time outs and the heroics of Koll and Zordani to run circles around the Notre Dame defense in the box, Denver iced the game to get the upset win.
Koll and Zordani led all scorers with three points each, Koll with one goal and two assists, Zordani with two goals and one assist.
The win brings Denver up to 8-4 on the season, while Notre Dame falls to 7-3.
It is worth noting that many believed that the winner of this game will be the representative from the GWLL in the NCAA tournament. It would be Denver's first appearance in post-season play in the program's eight years at the Division I level.
Asked if this is finally the year they make it to the tournament, Koll said, “I think so. We've never been this good or as close [together] and we feel really good about our team.”
Being cautious about his words in regards to finally winning the GWLL outright so as to not jinx it, Munro said after the game, “Hey, we're 2-0 in the conference and we're on the right track, but I don't want to talk about it. I'm only worried about Sunday.”
He of course meant the next upcoming game against Bucknell University as the Pioneers hope to close out their 2006 home schedule with a win to go a perfect 9-0 at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium.
photos by A.J. Benegas
Denver vs. Notre Dame