With barely a cloud in the sky, the sun shined down on a sell out crowd as the No.19 Denver Pioneers took down the No.20 North Carolina Tar Heels 11-8 at their host tournament, the Pioneer Face-Off Classic.
Before the game, calling the contest “a really great opportunity” for his team, Denver head coach Jamie Munro remarked that he believed the two teams measured up quite evenly and that it would be a grudge match where the “rubber would fall where it may.”
Needless to say, he could not have been more right.
Total shots for the game came to 40-39 UNC, Denver won the ground ball battle 36-29, Denver had one more turnover than the Tar Heels at 22-21 and both teams went one for six on man-up opportunities.
What made the difference in deciding the win-loss column then?
“I really don’t know,” said Munro. “I just think it was two close teams and it ended up in a close game that could have gone either way.”
Denver senior captain Bart Sullivan felt that it came down to stamina.
“I just think we kind of wore them out,” Sullivan said. “They played a close game against Air Force yesterday and we were able to use all our guys in our game yesterday.”
He continued, “I think we were a little deeper and able to play more people than them.”
Mile high air and vigor aside, penalties may have had something to do with the Denver victory as well. Although DU only scored once on their six man advantages, five of the North Carolina penalties were called in the second half where the Pioneers scored seven of their eleven goals.
Possessing the ball during these extra man advantages also helped Denver to go back to their game plan of settling the ball on offense during the second half.
In front of 2,051 fans, DU hit twine first with junior attackman Ryan Zordani dodging and putting one past North Carolina junior goalie Trey Sheain slightly more than a minute into the game.
The Tar Heels quickly responded, as senior Ryan Blair, a Tewaaraton Trophy watch list member, fed fellow attackman, sophomore Michael Burns, to knot the game at one a piece.
The first quarter ended with the teams trading a few more goals on another Blair feed for Burns and two Denver scores, one from junior attackman Brandon Barcus and another where he assisted sophomore Michael Goltra to put DU on top 3-2 going into the second.
Denver maintained a relatively high-pressure defense in the second, but UNC kicked the ball around the box quickly to beat the fast feet of DU. The Tar Heels scored four unanswered goals on settled situations before Denver senior midfield Adam Goodwin broke the streak with a nice wing dodge to roll back, before sinking a ridiculous left-handed crank on the run to bring his team within two, 6-4.
As he did in the first, Zordani started things up for Denver again only 14 seconds into the second half with an unassisted goal on what would be DU’s only man-up tally of the day.
Yet again, UNC quickly fired back to keep themselves up two. Taking advantage of some defensive miscommunication that left him wide open at the X, Blair flung his body into the air, just over Denver’s crease, to put a one-handed shot past netminder Jeb Hollingsworth and move the Tar Heels to 7-5 going into the fourth quarter.
Denver did not look to have an answer, as North Carolina looked composed and happy to focus on preventing decent shots by the Pioneers, while slowing the ball down on offense.
After some penalties that began to show chinks in the Tar Heels’ armor, Denver scored on freshman Brad Richardson’s crafty flip to senior midfielder Adam Miller for a right-handed rip just inside the box.
Barcus scored his second of the game under a minute later on a pass from red shirt freshman attackman Todd Ruport to tie the game up at seven.
Ruport added another on an incredible individual effort with less than three minutes remaining in the game to put DU up by one.
After Denver scored again, UNC finally added a tally to their column on a Rob Driscoll dodge down the wing, as he put the ball through Hollingsworth’s five hole to bring the score to 9-8, Denver.
Senior midfielder Geoff Snider reacted only seven seconds later, winning the draw and throwing fakes on the fast break before launching the ball into the net to put the Pioneers back up by two.
Denver moved to a zone defense on the next UNC possession, which forced the Tar Heels into shooting a bad outside shot, giving DU the ball back with about a minute remaining in the game.
Zordani sealed the deal for Denver with his third and what had to be the most amazing goal of his career.
After evading a strong North Carolina double-team down the wing, Zordani rolled back topside only to run into two more defenders. He somehow split the two, while still holding onto the ball, giving himself a one-on-one with Sheain.
Zordani rocketed the ball just under the crossbar and over Sheain’s head to put the game out of reach at 11-8.
“This was a total team effort,” said Munro after the game. “UNC is a very athletic and well coached team, but we played well and our juniors and seniors really stepped up and made some big plays for us.”
This was the first win Denver has enjoyed over North Carolina out of the six games that the two teams have played. Last year, UNC beat Denver 18-12 at Chapel Hill.
The win today combined with the 19-2 victory over the Manhattan College Jaspers the day before also gave Denver their first outright win of the Face-Off Classic. Last year the Towson University Tigers won the honor, and in 2004, Denver shared the title with Air Force as they both went 2-0, both shocking the defending national champion University of Virginia Cavaliers.
For his efforts on the weekend, Snider was named the tournament’s MVP. Joining him from Denver on the all-tournament team were Zordani on attack, Hollingsworth in goal and sophomore Rory Shepard on defense.
The win moved the Pioneers up to 2-1 on the season, while the Tar Heels drop down to 2-1.
In the early game of the tournament, the Manhattan Jaspers set the tone on the day for the Pioneers by narrowly defeating the Air Force Academy Falcons by a score of 5-4.
In what was an extremely sloppy game, the Falcons led 3-0 at the half, before junior attackman Brian Murray finally broke the ice for Manhattan just under a minute into the third quarter.
Murray went on to score three more of the team’s five total goals, all in the second half. On defense, freshman goalie John Geagan stood firm and quarterbacked the Jaspers making 19 saves on Air Force’s 32 shots.
The Jaspers improved to 1-1 with the surprising victory, while Air Force is still in search of their first win, falling to 0-3 on the season.
Photos: AJ Benegas
Denver vs. North Carolina