May 11, 2018
By John Heisler
Old-school men’s lacrosse aficionados may be more than capable of telling tales of Maryland-Johns Hopkins or Syracuse-Cornell matchups of years and even decades gone by.
But any look at the 21st century version of the most competitive rivalries in the game absolutely has to include the Notre Dame-Denver series that will be revisited again Sunday in a first-round NCAA Championship game—the third time in four years these programs have battled in May at the NCAA level.
In fact, these two programs--easily the two most successful outside of the traditional lacrosse neighborhoods that run from the Northeast down to Atlantic Coast Conference territory—could make a run in the ongoing narrowest victory margin category of any matchup in the game.
To start, the opposing head coaches have been to more NCAA Championships than any other active coaches. This is Denver coach Bill Tierney’s 27th year with a team in the postseason (the first 17 came at Princeton). This year, he took over the top spot on that career chart, passing former Brown and Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who also had 26. It’s Kevin Corrigan’s 23rd year in the NCAA event, all of those at Notre Dame, putting him third on that list.
The 2010 season probably qualifies as something of a watershed season in the rivalry. That’s the first year Tierney coached at Denver after 22 seasons (and six NCAA titles) at Princeton. That’s the same year Notre Dame for the first time advanced to the NCAA title game.
Notre Dame now has been to the NCAA Championship weekend in four of the past eight seasons (2010-12-14-15). Denver has qualified in five of the last seven (2011-13-14-15-17), winning the title in 2015 (after defeating the Irish in overtime in the national semifinals).
How tight have the games been between the Irish and Pioneers? Consider these numbers:
--In the 10 games beginning in Tierney’s second season in Denver in 2011, seven have been decided by a single goal—four of those in overtime and a fifth in triple overtime.
--The teams played four straight one-goal games in 2015 (two games), 2016 and 2017 (the regular-season matchup in Denver).
--Eliminate the outlier—Denver’s 16-4 win in a 2017 NCAA quarterfinal—and the other nine games among the last 10 have been decided by an average of 1.33 goals per contest.
--These teams went to overtime (or longer) five out of six meetings from 2012 through 2016—and that has never happened in any other Division I matchup.
That’s as much drama as anyone can squeeze out of a rivalry.
All that came after Notre Dame claimed the first eight games in the series--starting in 1992 and ending in 2005 when Denver beat the Irish for the first time.
The two teams have met every season since 1998—with both programs part of the Great Western Lacrosse League starting in 1999.
These two programs have become staples in the NCAA Championship in recent times—with Corrigan the only coach in the country to lead the same team to the NCAA event in 13 straight seasons (Duke’s John Danowski also has been in the bracket 13 straight years, but the first of those came at Hofstra).
Remember these names and years? Sean Rogers (2012), Jim Marlatt (2013), Zach Miller (2015 regular season and 2016), Wesley Berg (2015 NCAA). Those four players—the first two wore Irish uniforms, the last two wore Pioneer colors—were the heroes of the five overtime outcomes between Notre Dame and Denver, each managing at least one game-winning OT goal.
While Denver won the 2015 NCAA national semifinal meeting between the Irish and Pioneers, the game featured a truly amazing performance by former Irish midfielder Sergio Perkovic. It lasted maybe 10 minutes in real time, yet it likely goes down as the one of the most stunning individual performances in the history of college men’s lacrosse. The official score sheet said Perkovic scored five goals—all in the final period. A closer inspection indicates that the five goals came over a span of 5:57 in clock time. That would be a blue-ribbon accomplishment by a team (especially at the NCAA national semifinal level, against a team that ultimately won the title), much less for an individual.
The 2016 meeting (won by Denver in overtime at Arlotta Stadium) was a #1-vs-#2 match-up. Prior to this season’s regular-season meeting in March, the previous five meetings saw both schools ranked in the top five at the time of the game.
Not since 2010 (Tierney’s first season) has this contest been played without both teams ranked (Denver was not ranked in that game). Notre Dame has stood 11th nationally or better in every game beginning with the 2005 matchup (ironically Denver’s first series win).
Denver has won only twice in South Bend—that 9-6 Pioneer success in 2005 and then the Pioneers’ 9-8 overtime triumph in 2016.
Do a deep-dive analysis into this 2018 clash and it’s impossible to miss senior Denver faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste who boasts a .769 win percentage in those endeavors. Baptiste’s contributions are such that he is one of five Tewaaraton Award finalists for the second straight season—and he was the number-one overall selection in the Major League Lacrosse draft last month.
Baptiste has taken 1,572 career face-offs for Denver and won at a .718 rate over four seasons. Baptiste won 36 of 46 face-offs in his two previous NCAA appearances against Notre Dame—and has won 98 of 138 in his career versus the Irish. In the March 10 regular-season meeting in South Bend, Baptiste won 15 of 24—yet the Irish managed to dictate the tempo by scoring the first four goals and bolting to a 6-1 lead after the opening period.
While Notre Dame has a well-earned reputation for defensive excellence over recent seasons, this Denver team actually leads the country in that category—at 7.47 goals allowed per contest (Notre Dame is 13th at 8.57). The Pioneers only three times in 2018 allowed opponents to reach double-figure goal totals—15 by Duke, 11 by Notre Dame and 10 by Towson.
But this time Denver will be tested by an Irish offense running on all cylinders—after the Irish averaged 16 goals per contest over their last three games, including 14 vs. top-ranked Duke in an ACC Championship semifinal and then 17 more in defeating Virginia in the title game. Among the Notre Dame weapons is senior attack Mikey Wynne whose 125 career goals rank him sixth among active players.
Given the recent NCAA history of these two programs, this matchup qualifies as a treat for the first round of the postseason.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish athletic fortunes since 1978.