Athletics & Recreation / News

Lacrosse teams shooting for big goals this season

Good or bad, several college lacrosse programs have the University of Denver teams in their crosshairs.

Both the men’s and women’s squads earned favorable early nods from coaches in their respective conferences’ preseason polls: the men are ranked first in the Eastern College Athletic Conference and the women second in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

Men’s head coach Bill Tierney calls the ranking “humbling” and says it’s nice to get respect from fellow coaches. But “the fact is, everybody has depth and talent now, everybody’s about the same,” Tierney says. “So we’ll take where we’re ranked and put it out there, but really the only poll that matters is the one at the end of the season.”

He adds that his goal for the year remains the same: a spot in the NCAA tournament.

DU women’s head coach Liza Kelly says she stays clear of goals “set from the outside.” That means preseason polls. “We don’t pay much attention to them and instead focus on concrete goals for each game.”

Regardless of what anyone thinks of DU lacrosse either before, during or after a season, both teams have plenty to be optimistic about in 2011.

The men are entering their second year under hall-of-fame coach Tierney. Last season, they turned in one of their best seasons ever. The team finished 12-5 and a perfect 7-0 in the conference. The Pioneers also won the conference title and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

“I’m particularly optimistic about our ability to score goals this year,” Tierney says. “We can push the ball, score goals in transition and take advantage of mismatches.”

More good news: their top two leading scorers and preseason All-American selections, Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews are returning. Matthews took home preseason ECAC offensive player of the year honors and joined Demopoulos on the preseason All-ECAC team.

Last season, Matthews started all 17 games and scored in 15 of them. He led the Pioneers with 38 goals and recorded eight hat tricks. Demopoulos finished second in goals scored with 36.

Freshman goalie Jamie Faus was tapped as the preseason rookie of the year, and was named All-American in 2009.

Tierney calls Faus an “outstanding” goalie who’ll be “integral” to the team’s success.

Another player getting accolades is Andrew Lay, the team’s senior captain. In a preseason game against North Carolina earlier this year, Tierney says he thought Lay was the best player on the field. “He’s just blossoming into a great, great midfielder.”

Lay says he’s feeling good about the upcoming season and that the team has enough talent to make it to the Final Four.

“The proof will be on the field and whether or not we can perform. We have a lot of talent and leaders,” Lay says. “I think we’re ahead of where we were last year and that’s huge because we were just getting our feet under ourselves this time last year.”

And even though DU will lose Lay and six other seniors at the end of the 2011 season, the team’s future looks to remain healthy: 12 top recruits signed national letters of intent to play for DU next season.

Tierney says the players — a mix of offensive and defensive talent — represent “exactly what we’re looking for … an elite, well-balanced group with impact in the spots we need, and others who’ll provide depth … and grow into strong contributors [and] will undoubtedly help us climb the Division I lacrosse ladder.”

This year’s team of men will get a good test to see just how good they are when they face the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils on April 9 in New York. Both Tierney and Duke’s head coach, John Danowski, grew up a few miles from game’s site, Bethpage High School. The school was looking for a way to showcase its new stadium and arranged for the two schools to play. More than 6,000 people are expected to attend.

Another game generating early buzz is Ohio State, which is at 3 p.m. April 16 at Invesco Field at Mile High. Last year, DU eked out a last minute 10-9 win over Ohio State.

“I’m sure Ohio State will come back at us with a vengeance,” Tierney says. “And playing at Invesco means a lot of excitement for our local fans.”

Last year DU beat Loyola in front of about 5,000 fans at Invesco. “It was a great success, the Invesco people liked it and I think it’s a good way to bring lacrosse to the community.”

The men open their season against perennial national contender Syracuse with 13-7 loss Feb. 20.  The Pioneers face Vermont in the home-opener at noon on Feb. 27. 

On the women’s side, the team graduated half of its starting lineup, but 17 players are returning, including all-conference honorees Kara Secora (2010 MPSF newcomer of the year), Lauren Ciccomascolo, Tulley Stapp and goalkeeper Ashley Harman. The squad finished 13-5 overall in 2010 and swept the MPSF 6-0 during the regular season.

Stapp, a senior mid-fielder from Denver, says she believes the DU women have a good shot at a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“I think our chances are high to do well this season,” Stapp says. “We have a lot of strong younger players, freshmen, this year who very athletic and motivated.”

Stapp also credits a long preseason with plenty of practice time.

“We’ve been working six days a week and we’ve developed leadership all over the field. Last year, we only had two or three leaders, but this year we have a whole field full and everyone is communicating very well.”  

Nevertheless, the women have their work cut out for them; they’ll face six ranked teams from last year, including a home date against Final Four finisher North Carolina on March 7.

And that’s fine with Kelly.

“It’s a strong schedule that will help build the team up through the season,” Kelly says. “We take our licks early on and try to challenge ourselves outside of conference. We have to play those top teams to get where we want to go, we’re not going to do that playing cupcakes.” 

Kelly says she feels good about this year’s teams because of the competitiveness among the players. “We have a number of players competing for several spots so they’re working hard.”

On the offensive side, Kelly says attackers Secora, Ciccomascolo and Becca Steinburg are “all seeing the field well and working well together.” 

For defense, Kelly praised all the team’s goalies: Ashley Harmon, Hanna Hook and Lauren Benner.

The women started their season at Jacksonville on Feb. 18 and take on St. Mary’s in their home opener on March 4 at 4 p.m.

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