Defense is key to Pioneers' hopes
Jeff Brown comes from what you might call traditional lacrosse country: the Northeast. Born in Boston, he grew up in Cohasset, Mass., and had the opportunity to stay close to home to be an Ivy League lacrosse player.
Instead, he headed to Denver, confident it was a program on the rise and that he would enjoy a change in scenery. He's been right on both counts.
Brown, now a senior, is one of a group of very experienced defenders for a Denver squad that will host Villanova on Sunday (ESPNU, 5:15 p.m. ET) in an opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.
Much has been made, for understandable reasons, about it being the first NCAA tournament men's lacrosse match held west of the Mississippi River. It really is a big deal for the sport, and is just the beginning of what coach Bill Tierney was aiming for when he left his longtime, highly successful post at Princeton two years ago to take over in Rocky Mountain territory.
But even Tierney acknowledges that the Pioneers are perhaps a little ahead of schedule. Denver, 13-2, is the No. 6 seed in the 16-team NCAA field.
"Right now it's overwhelming -- a good kind of overwhelming," Tierney said. "When you sell out a stadium and have people vying for your attention, that's all good. The hardest part, I think, has been trying to get our own focus on the fact that we've got to win a lacrosse game."
And that's where it helps to have the kind of veterans on defense, in particular, that Denver has. Defensive midfielders Alex Drexler, Emerson Eichler and Jamie Macdonald are all seniors, as are defenders Brown and Steve Simonetti. Another key defender, Brendan DeBlois, is a redshirt junior.
"We all came in together four years ago and have all learned each other's tendencies," Brown said. "We function really well together as a unit. We're all leaders in our own right, and each member of our defense has made some big plays this year."
Both of those things could be critical, since it seems likely the Pioneers will be without another senior, attacker Todd Baxter, on Sunday. He is second on the team to Mark Matthews this season in goals and has the kind of competitive personality that lifts everyone around him. Baxter injured his ankle and knee last Saturday in the ECAC championship game. Sophomore Eric Law is expected to move into Baxter's attack spot.
Denver's defense against Villanova already was going to be a point of emphasis. And the maturity of the Pioneers' defensive core may be needed just a little more if an offensive force such as Baxter isn't on the field.
"Todd has clearly dedicated this whole season to the betterment of his teammates," Tierney said. "I know we're not the team without him that we are with him.
"You know that Todd gets you about three extra possessions a game, through riding or ground balls that no one else gets. And those three times might be the difference in a game. I think we have others offensively who can step forward. But yeah, we'll probably have a little more pressure on the defense without Todd."
Denver's defense, which has given up an average of 8.09 goals this season, is very well-prepared for that.
"When we started this season, we knew we were good," said Simonetti, who is from Dublin, Ohio. "We all know that our offense has the ability to go out there and score in double digits, so we've just got to hold up our end of it on the defensive side."
Tierney's son, Trevor, is an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Pioneers. Trevor played goalie on two of his father's six NCAA title teams at Princeton. The Tierneys' defensive philosophy is all about fostering a sense of accountability among teammates.
"We never leave any one player out on an island," Trevor Tierney said. "So anybody who's covering his opponent knows that he's going to have help, and usually very quickly. What that does is allow us to be very confident in the roles that we have.
"We don't ask anybody to just cover their man, and if you don't, it's going to be a shot on goal. We slide; we drive people in directions where we hope they're going to lose angles. We take away the inside. If we have to give anything up, it's going to be an outside shot. We don't check; we think checking -- although it makes for a turnover every once in a while -- allows more times for you to get beat."
Brown liked Denver's defensive style his first two seasons under former head coach Jamie Munro. But Brown feels the system has suited him even better the past two years under Tierney.
"I think his Princeton-style defense is easy to learn," Brown said. "It relies on good team play, and really allows you to make big plays, while also knowing you have support behind you.
"He is very straightforward in how he wants defense played. And having such clear-cut objectives about what you want to do makes it easier to just go out and play."
The Pioneers have lost this season only to Syracuse, which is seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament, and Notre Dame, which is No. 4. Those defeats were in February and March, respectively, and were the only times in 2011 that the Pioneers have been held to single-digit goals.
They've now won 10 in a row, and next have a game that is a milestone for their program.
"It's phenomenal," Simonetti said. "Lacrosse is expanding. It's being a part of history."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.