Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a game by its first three minutes.
The Drexel men’s lacrosse team sprinted to a 2-0 lead versus Denver University before surrendering 14 of the next 16 goals en route to a 15-6 defeat in the NCAA quarterfinals May 18 at Delaware Stadium.
The Dragons seemed out of sync often and were clinically outworked by a stingy Denver outfit. Hall of Fame head coach Bill Tierney’s group flexed its defensive muscle Sunday as Drexel became the ninth straight opponent the Pioneers have held to single digits.
“I think he’s the best coach in the game,” Drexel head coach Brian Voelker said of his friend Tierney. “He does an awesome job out there; his assistants obviously have things working.
“Their kids played great today.”
The Dragons started hot, striking twice in the first three minutes of the game to take a 2-0 lead before the Pioneers could find their feet.
But when the Pioneers came to, they responded in a big way. Denver drew three penalties in the first 15 minutes and scored all three times, abusing the Drexel defense with a man-advantage.
From there it was a tale of two offenses. The Dragons never found a rhythm offensively, lacking extended possession time in the offensive zone and lacking patience when possession materialized.
Dragons’ senior faceoff specialist Nick Saputo, who earned national acclaim for his heroics at the end of the first half in the first round against the University of Pennsylvania, never found his rhythm in the faceoff circle.
“Nick is obviously a guy who, when he gets into a groove, he’s a huge weapon for us, and he wasn’t able to get in a groove for whatever reason,” Voelker said after the game.
Voelker was visibly frustrated with the way the face-offs were called by the referees, including a pair of face-off violations that gave the Pioneers two of their three man-up chances in the first quarter which turned the tide in Denver’s favor.
“To be honest, I felt like the face-offs were called different today than we’ve had them called all year, and I’m not really sure why,” Voelker said. “I think I missed a memo about the guys going down and staying down for ages at a time.”
Regardless of the reason, the difference in Saputo’s game was evident and had an immediate impact on Drexel’s game.
The senior entered the game with a 63.8 percent success rate but was stymied by Denver sophomore midfielder Chris Hampton. The senior won just seven of 22 attempted faceoffs Sunday, leading to a disjointed Drexel offense and a bevy of opportunities for the Pioneers.
“Denver, they do a really good job of holding on to the ball so they can get a rhythm, and when they’re winning face-offs, they have the possession of the ball for the majority of the game,” senior Ben McIntosh said. “When they’re controlling the ball and you can’t get the ball in the offensive end to even attack, it’s tough. It’s frustrating.”
The Dragons were held scoreless for 29 minutes and 23 seconds of game time, spanning both halves and leapfrogging the second quarter altogether.
On the opposite side of the field, the Pioneers were infallible.
Denver junior midfielder Erik Adamson entered the game with 38 goals on the season, good for third-most by a Pioneer. Sunday afternoon he exploded for six goals on seven shots, a microcosm of the shooting efficiency the Pioneers displayed Sunday. As a team, Denver managed to put 75 percent of its shots on goal, converting 62.5 percent of those shots on goal.
“When this team has this many possessions, they’re [going to] grind you down, and they’re [going to] score goals, and they obviously did that today,” Voelker said.
The second quarter proved to be the breaking point the Pioneers needed. They broke away from the man-up scoring, netting five even-strength goals beginning with a Tyler Pace marker just 23 seconds into the half. Five different goal scorers grew the Denver lead from two goals to seven as Adamson picked up a hat-trick with 10.9 seconds to play in the first half, a dagger of a first-half goal.
“They kind of grind you down and grind you down,” Volker said. “And then obviously they have some great players to finish it.
On the defensive side the Dragons never found a foothold, beginning with the back side’s foundation in sophomore goaltender Will Gabrielsen. He entered the game averaging 9.50 goals allowed per game, but Sunday he looked shaky from the beginning.
“We talked about doing some things defensively that we didn’t really do early in the game,” Voelker explained after the game. “We tried to take it away from them so they couldn’t really swing the ball to the back side, and we didn’t do a good enough job in the first of doing that.”
The 15 goals the Dragons allowed Sunday were the most they allowed all season. Their previous high was 13 against the University at Albany February 22.
Still, this was the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, the most successful season in Drexel men’s lacrosse history. Voelker said he realizes that there are a lot of lessons and positives to take from this year, but that doesn’t mean he plans on resting on this team’s accomplishments as the program moves forward.
“You hope it’s a building block and you always want to get better,” Voelker said, “We’re losing some pretty good players, and that’s obviously going to be a tough thing for us. But you hope that the kids here realize what it took for us to get here and how hard you have to work.
“But just because we got here, just because this team did this, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again next year. And that’s going to be the message to the guys at the end of the year meeting.”
McIntosh and Nick Trizano are among the seniors who played their final games as Dragons Sunday afternoon.
McIntosh, the recently crowned CAA Player of the Year and de facto leader of the team since the beginning of the season back in February, was still grappling with the ending of his career as a Dragon in the post-game press conference.
“Today’s obviously a tough loss. You’re never going to be happy when you’re losing the last game of your career,” McIntosh mused. “We know what we did this year, we’re proud of ourselves, we worked hard all year, and we took this program to somewhere it’s never been, so to an extent you’ve got to be proud.
“But it’s always disappointing when you lose your last game.”
The Dragons finished the season with a record of 13-5. Sunday’s defeat was their first loss since March 22. The Pioneers will move on to the NCAA Tournament semifinals next weekend in Baltimore, Md., where they will face Duke University.