Fall Snapshot: Denver Pioneers

(Photo Courtesy of Denver Athletics)

Welcome to the Fall Snapshot series. Throughout the fall I will be taking an early look at all 75 DI men’s college lacrosse teams and giving a snapshot of where each is heading into the 2023 season.

Head Coach: Bill Tierney (14th year, 2009-present)

Denver 2022 Record: 9-6 (4-1 Big East)

Key Departures: Jack Hannah (M), Alex Simmons (A), Ted Sullivan (M)

Key Returners: JJ Sillstrop (A), Alec Stathakis (FO), Malik Sparrow (LSM), AJ Mercurio (D), Jack DiBendetto (D), Jack Thompson (G)

Transfer Additions: N/A

With regards to the standard set at Denver during the Bill Tierney era, the 2022 campaign was a down year for the Pioneers as they failed to make the NCAA Tournament for just the second full season during the Tierny era and fell to Villanova, 15-14, in the Big East semifinals. Coupled with a regular-season slate that saw the Pioneers struggle to put it together in non-conference play, which featured an upset loss to Jacksonville, and this past spring was not a pleasant one in the Mile High City.

In Big East play, Denver was proven to once again be sitting behind the current conference kings, Georgetown, while fighting Villanova for that second spot in the league. The Pioneers went 1-1 against the Wildcats.

Looking ahead towards the 2023 season, Denver certainly has its share of personnel losses but also looks better in some areas than other teams. The ultimate question, though, is if the Pioneers can return to their old winning ways and be playing on the biggest stage in May?

Burning Questions

What Does The Offense Look Like?

Of its top-five scorers from a year ago, Denver will only see one return for the 2023 season. Jack Hannah (33G/14A), Alex Simmons (30G/15A), Ted Sullivan (24G/17A), and Johnny Marrocco (16G/17A) are all gone, as well as sixth-leading point-getter Curtis Riley (12G/16A). Beyond the 194 points and 115 goals lost, the Pioneers lose their entire starting midfield (Hannah, Sullivan, Riley) and two starting attackmen (Simmons and Marrocco). That’s a massive blow for any team.

Despite those major losses, there is some good news. Leading scorer JJ Sillstrop is back for his senior season after a 2022 campaign that was his best yet, tallying 30 goals and 18 assists for 48 points. The next two top returning producers are Richie Connell (14G/4A) and Michael Lampert (7G/9A). Connell, a mid-year transfer from Richmond, and Lampert both showed flashes last season, as did sophomore Noah Manning (8G/3A) with an 11-point freshman campaign.

As far as returners go, Sillstrop is the face of this offense while Connell, Lampert, and Manning will help form that supporting cast along with others. No grad transfers or fifth-year returnees this season means a true fresh start with plenty of younger players for the Pioneers offense in 2023 and that’ll be interesting to see how it develops and comes together this spring.

Does This Veteran Defense Make a Jump?

The final two games of the shortened 2020 season saw a freshman Jackson Thompson start in cage with fellow freshmen Jack DiBendetto and Adam Hangland start at close while Malik Sparrow and AJ Mercurio, both of whom were also freshmen at the time, play big roles as LSMs. Three seasons later and those five are heading into their senior seasons as the core of this Pioneers defense that allowed 11.47 goals per game last season and twice held five of their opponents to single-digits last spring.

2019 was the last season in which Denver had a defense with this much of a veteran presence. Defensemen Matt Neufeldt and Dylan Gaines were the Pioneers’ top two poles as a redshirt senior and senior while goalie Alex Ready came into the season with three years of starting experience. Juniors at the time, defenseman Colin Squires and SSDM Danny Logan, who were staples of that 2021 Denver defense, were the only non-seniors who were massive contributors for the entire season. That 2019 campaign was also the last in which the Pioneers allowed single-digit goals on the season (9.3).

In 2022, with as much veteran presence as this defense returns, can the Pioneers take a step back towards what we saw from those Denver defenses in those early Bill Tierney years and the four years following the Pioneers’ national championship run?

No Fifth-Years No Problem?

Each of the past two seasons the Pioneers had a roster that numbered in the 60s. It resembled a football sideline more than a lacrosse one. With no fifth-year returnees or grad transfers anywhere to be seen on Denver’s 2023 roster it marks a true return to normal from a roster management standpoint for this program.

Without as many fifth-year players on the Pioneers’ roster this spring, plenty more young players and unknown commodities will emerge as playmakers for this program. How impactful many of these lesser experienced players can and will be, especially on offense, is certainly one of the biggest aspects to watch concerning Denver heading into the 2023 season.

Potential Breakout Player

Michael Lampert, Attack, Junior

Neither Sillstrop nor Connell have shown to be quarterback-type attackmen throughout their careers. Both are goal-scorers. With as many holes to fill as Denver has on offense, Lampert could very well slip in and be an impact player on attack and possibly take on that X attackman role. He had seven goals and nine assists a season ago as a reserve.

Freshman Class

Denver brings in 13 players with its 2022 recruiting class. The Pioneers class features five players ranked as four-stars by Inside Lacrosse: LSM Chris Caldwell (IMG Academy, Fla.), midfielder Colm Barnett (Avon Old Farms, Conn.), attackman Tye Scott (Salisbury, Conn.), goalie Tim McNamara (Tabor Academy, Mass.), and midfielder Cade Eldred (Shawnee Mission East, Kan.). Caldwell, along with fellow Pioneer freshman Drew Wynocker (St. Ignatius, Ohio), played in the Adrenaline All-American Game in late July.

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