(Photo Courtesy of Denver Athletics)
The Denver Pioneers joined the Big East ahead of the 2014 season and immediately dominated. Through their first three seasons in the conference, the only loss Bill Tierney’s squad suffered against a conference foe came at the hands of Marquette in the 2016 Big East championship game. It would be the first instance of what has turned into somewhat of a trend of Denver falling in the Big East title game. The Pioneers fell to Marquette again in the 2017 conference semifinals before becoming victims of the Georgetown dynasty, losing to the Hoyas in the past three Big East championship games (2018, 2019, 2021).
Led by a legend in Bill Tierney and being the only Big East program to have won a national title (2015), the Pioneers are still a perennial top-15 program. However, the “glory years” of Pioneer lacrosse get further away with every passing season.
A fourth Denver-Georgetown Big East championship game meeting is almost a given in 2022. With the Hoyas continuing to build on their successes and Bill Tierney having three years left on what is expected to be the legendary coach’s final contract extension one has to ask: if Denver can’t take back the Big East in 2022 will we ever see them do so again under Tierney?
During the 2021 season, Denver relied heavily on the transfer portal, grabbing a trio of Yale grad transfers in Jackson Morrill, Lucas Cotler, and TD Ierlan to further bolster their roster. Morrill led the Pioneers’ offense with 70 points off 37 goals and 33 assists while Cotler had 19 goals and nine assists for 28 points as the team’s fifth-leading scorer. Ierlan, who came in for the final nine games of the season, went 86-for-118 (72%) at the dot, which included a pair of perfect games against Providence and St. John’s.
In addition to the loss of the aforementioned trio of transfers, Denver also loses attackman Ethan Walker (39G/21A), who was a starter all five seasons of his career, as well as their top close defenseman in Colin Squires (34GB/10CT), and SSDMs Danny Logan (45GB/16CT) and Kyle Smith (25GB/18CT).
Losing six key players is never easy, and while directly replacing any of the aforementioned six is practically impossible, the Pioneers do return enough talent and experience to suggest that they won’t be able to just survive the blows that come with losing the talent that they do, but they’ll be able to continue to thrive.
Flipping the script from 2021, Denver’s offense will likely be more midfield-heavy, from a production standpoint, this coming spring. With the loss of Morrill and Walker, senior Alex Simmons (31G/24A) will take over the keys of the offense as the Pioneers’ top returning attackman while Jack Hannah and Ted Sullivan will headline things at the midfield position. Hannah put up 47 points off 37 goals and 10 assists as the Pioneers’ top midfielder last season. Sullivan had 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points.
Junior JJ Sillstrop (11G/3A) will likely slide back into a starting role at attack after taking more of a back seat as a sophomore, playing in just eight games with four starts. The California native started all six games at attack as a freshman during the shortened 2020 season. Similarly, graduate student Riley Curtis and Ellis Geis could very well step up and take on starting roles at the midfield after a 2021 campaign which saw the duo serve as two of the Pioneers’ top reserve midfielders.
With an experienced core of Simmons, Hannah, and Sullivan, as well as Sillstrop likely to take on a bigger role, Denver has the foundation in place needed to succeed on the offensive end of the field in today’s game. How exactly offensive coordinator Matt Brown will structure the offense around this core is the real question heading into the 2022 season on that end of the field.
The Pioneers have also added Mercyhurst (DIII) grad transfer Caleb Kueber. A native of Victoria (B.C.) and product of Claremont Secondary, Kueber was a three-year starter for the Lakers and was a top-three scorer all three seasons as a starter. The attackman led the Lakers with 88 points off 56 goals and 32 assists as a senior during the 2021 season, helping to lead them to an NCAA Semifinals appearance. If he can make that seamless transition from DIII to DI as others have, Kueber could also be a major asset for the Pioneers this spring.
No matter how this Denver offense gets structured, they can almost count on winning the possession battle the majority of the time. While replacing Ierlan is nearly impossible, the Pioneers return another dominant faceoff man in Alec Stathakis. The Michigan native and Culver product made his presence known across the college lacrosse landscape as a freshman in 2020, serving as Denver’s top option at the dot and going 62% during the shortened season. He continued as the Pioneers’ top option for the majority of the 2021 season, where he went 191-for-301 (63%), before sharing time with Ierlan for the final nine games. He ended the season ranked eighth nationally in faceoff percentage.
With Stathakis back, as well as senior Brett Boos, its not out of the realm of possibility to think the Pioneers could have the best one-two punch at the dot for the second consecutive season.
Perhaps the defensive end of the field is where some of the biggest questions lie, overall, for this Pioneers squad heading into the 2022 season. LSM/D AJ Mercurio (19GB/11CT), defensemen Jack DiBenedetto (21GB/11CT) and Adam Hangland (17GB/4CT), and goalie Jack Thompson (56% save percentage) all return with a wealth of experience after two seasons as full-time starters. However, the losses this unit suffers are pretty brutal.
Squires was a multi-year leader on the back end while Logan and Smith were two of the most impactful players on either end of the field for Denver this past season. The three were massive pieces of what ended up being the 11th-ranked scoring defense in the nation (10 goals allowed per game), along with Quinnipiac, Navy, and Boston U.
Senior defenseman Mac Tezak could very well fill that hole at close defense after starting four games in 2020 and being the Pioneers’ top reserve close defenseman in 2021. Mercurio or Malik Sparrow, who have spent most of their careers at LSM but have been bumped down to close a few times before, could also be possible options to fill that spot. Additionally, highly-rated freshman Jimmy Freehill could also have a shot, after all Denver hasn’t been afraid to put their trust in freshman before. The Pioneers featured a defense in 2020 that was nearly an all-freshman unit.
Senior Matthew Marino is the top returning true SSDM for the Pioneers, playing in 11 games last season and collecting three ground balls and forcing one turnover.
Denver comes into the 2022 season after seeing their season end on their home turf with Loyola’s Sam Shafer making the save of the year. While there are plenty of questions surrounding both ends of the field, this squad appears to have the foundation needed to get back to the top of the Big East for the first time since 2015 and possibly get back to the NCAA Quarterfinals for the first time since 2018.