Despite not even scoring in the second half, the No.14 University of Denver Pioneers defeated their in-state conference rival, the Air Force Falcons, to win their first-ever outright Great Western Lacrosse League (GWLL) title, going a perfect 5-0 in conference play.
Earlier in the week, Denver Head Coach Jamie Munro said that as usual, he expected a tough game in Colorado Springs against Air Force because of their extreme athleticism and skill at defense, led by senior goalie J.J. Pavoni. However, he once again affirmed that if they stuck to focusing on what they do rather than on what their opponent would do, odds should come up in Denver's favor.
Although it was senior day for the Falcons at Cadet Lacrosse Stadium, the game was all Denver. The Pioneers' game plan thrived as they went on to overwhelmingly dominate the time of possession throughout the game, create several more scoring opportunities on offense and most importantly, score more goals, winning 7-3.
“We played really well on defense and really well on offense in the first half,” assessed Munro. “Getting a win at Air Force is always awesome because it's not easy.”
Senior midfielder Geoff Snider - last week's GWLL player of the week for his efforts against Ohio State and Butler on the road - got the Pioneers on the board quickly with an unassisted time-and-room rip from just inside the box to put Denver up 1-0 early in the first.
The Pioneers followed their initial offensive control with their usual high-pressure defense, which led to several prompt turnovers and failed clear attempts by the Falcons.
Denver then took advantage of some of these early Air Force mishaps on freshman midfielder Eric Covey's lone goal of the day on a nifty feed from junior attackman Brandon Barcus.
After throwing a fake at X, Barcus hit a crease-cutting Covey who stuck a quick shot through traffic past Pavoni to put Denver up 2-0 with just over eight minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Barcus followed the assist up with an unassisted goal of his own on a broken transition play where he ran past Pavoni, after the netminder came out of the cage, to put away an easy empty net goal right on the crease.
Barcus was absolutely leveled on the play in what was potentially a late hit by the Falcons' senior defenseman Patrick Mitchell. No flags were thrown on the play however.
Barcus was escorted out of the game and to a nearby hospital. Unfortunately for Denver, especially with the NCAA tournament approaching, initial reports had their second-leading scorer (25, 8) with a concussion and possibly a broken jaw.
The injury timeout apparently provided exactly what the Falcons needed to regather their thoughts though as they came back to the field and created their first settled offensive possession. From there, they were able to net their first tally of the day on an unassisted goal from freshman midfielder Griffin Nevitt that put the score at 3-1, Denver.
The Pioneers responded shortly thereafter, showing their first 10-man ride in the game, which caused more Air Force turnovers during several of their clears.
This helped keep the Pioneers on offense and allowed for a feed from Covey to freshman midfielder Joey Murray with five minutes remaining in the first to add another to Denver's column.
Denver leading-scorer, junior attackman Ryan Zordani, then hooked up with Murray under two minutes later to notch Murray's second on the day, as well as the team's first and only man-up score in the game. The goal also put the Pioneers up 5-1 going into the second quarter.
About thirty seconds into the second, transition midfielder, senior Adam Miller, filling in on attack, then drew a crowd and dished the ball to sophomore attackman and Lafayette transfer Jon Paulson for a right-handed blast from the right side of the box. The goal put Denver up 6-1 and reasserted their command of the game.
The letdowns in clearing the ball persisted for the Falcons as Denver continued to put on the pressure in their ride package. In all, the Falcons failed on 20 of their 36 clear attempts on the day.
Asked about the effectiveness of their rides against Air Force and on the season, Munro said that it was something that they decided to commit to early in the year.
“A lot of programs commit to one thing or another and riding was something that our program chose to focus on,” he explained. “We tend to think it fits well with our high-pressure defense.”
The success in riding once again led to a goal for the Pioneers, this time from senior midfielder Adam Goodwin with the assist from Snider.
Snider kicked the ball to Goodwin who was settled into Denver's 2-3-1 offense. The southpaw then faked a lefty shot and face-dodged past his defender before firing off a rocket through a screen over Pavoni's head.
This last goal for Denver put them up 7-1 and from there, the Pioneers shifted to cruise control for the remainder of the contest.
The rest of the game was filled with countless turnovers, bad passes and dropped balls on both sides in what must have been one of the uglier showings in Division I lacrosse all season.
Air Force did however hold the Pioneers to no goals in the second half while putting two more of their own past Denver junior goalie Jeb Hollingsworth to bring the game to a close at 7-3.
Hollingsworth finished with a strong eight save performance to Pavoni's ten.
With the loss, the Falcons close the season with a frustrating 7-9 (2-3) record.
Air Force Head Coach Fred Acee was obviously disappointed by the final outcome, but overall, was happy with his team's performance this season.
“I'm disappointed,” Acee said, “but I was never once disappointed with the kids because they never quit. We progressed a lot this season and really came back this year with some strong wins.”
As for Denver, the victory brings the Pioneers to an impressive 12-4 (5-0) in the standings as they move toward making their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. They will enter the post season with their best-ever record and riding their longest winning streak in team history at the Division I-level, which currently stands at seven.
The Pioneers will wait until the May 7 selection show to find out who will be their next opponent in the first round of NCAA tournament.
On Denver's chances in the NCAA tournament, Acee said that it would certainly depend on the seeding, but that he feels they have a good chance.
“I think they could definitely win the first game,” he said. “While their style of play can sometimes hurt them, I think they have a shot at whoever they play.”
Pictures by A.J. Benegas
Air Force vs. Denver