PHILADELPHIA // No one would accuse Bill Tierney of being wishy washy.
Despite a scintillating 13-save performance by sophomore goalkeeper Ryan LaPlante in the first half during which he surrendered just two goals, the Denver coach stuck to his season-long plan of rotating goalies and inserted junior Jamie Faus for the remaining 30 minutes of play.
Faus did not play nearly as well as his predecessor, finishing with just four saves and giving up seven goals as the fourth-seeded Pioneers failed to hold onto a three-goal advantage in the fourth quarter and lost to top-seeded Syracuse, 9-8, in a NCAA tournament semifinal at Lincoln Financial Field here Saturday evening.
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For the second time in three years, Denver (14-5) ended its season one win short of the title game. Some fans might wonder why LaPlante did not finish the game as he did in the team’s 13-12 overtime decision over 2012 national champion Loyola on April 13, but Tierney pointed out that critics questioned why Faus did not start after he made 11 saves and surrendered just five goals in more than 50 minutes of play after replacing LaPlante in the first quarter of an eventual 12-11 decision against fifth-seeded North Carolina last Sunday in the quarterfinal round.
“We were thrilled with the way [LaPlante] was playing, but this is what we’ve done,” Tierney said. “A week ago, people were asking me why Ryan was in for so long – all of 10 minutes. We’ve got two great young men, two guys that are fantastic goalies. None of those goals were Jamie’s fault. I actually think that Ryan had another save. I thought one of the goals we gave them was a save. Jamie’s our closer. Jamie’s the guy who comes in and he’s done a great job over the year. I think instead of blaming a 21-year-old kid, you look to Syracuse and say that was a heck of an effort. They did what they needed to do.”
LaPlante’s 13 stops in the first half were a season-best, but he also stood by Tierney’s decision.
“[W]e’ve been playing the first half-second half system all year,” LaPlante said. “We were going to stick with it now matter what. That’s just the way it goes, and Jamie did a fine job. Sometimes the bounces don’t go your way.”
Orange coach John Desko said he was not surprised that Denver stuck with its routine.
“I think it’s pre-determined,” he said. “There’s a mindset with goalies. You know you’re going in for one half, and you know the other guy’s going in for the second half, and they mentally prepare for that. Sometimes to leave your goalie in after the first half when you’ve been switching all year long, suddenly it changes their mindset, too. So I think it’s something they’ve done, and I thought he came in the second half and made some big saves, too.”
It could be argued that Syracuse’s game-winning goal was not Faus’ fault. He stopped senior midfielder Luke Cometti’s shot from the right alley, but the ball bounced right into the stick of junior attackman Derek Maltz on the doorstep for the goal with 19.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“On the last goal, Jamie makes the save and unfortunately, there’s a rebound, and we don’t cover up the rebound, which we usually do pretty well,” Tierney said. “A lot of emotion, a lot of young men. The goalie thing, we were sure. It wasn’t until I was heading out on the field at halftime that I realized that Ryan had as many saves as he did. I knew he was playing well, but I really didn’t think much about it.”
*The Pioneers were plagued by turnovers. The team gave the ball away 17 times, which ranked as the second most this season. Senior attackman Eric Law, a transfer from Salisbury, credited the Orange defense with getting Denver out of its comfort zone and Tierney agreed. “Defensively, I thought they kind of got in our way a little bit and got us out of our game a little bit,” he said. “We took five or six shots where we just decided that we were going to go to the goal and it was hit or miss, and that’s not our style. Our style is the ones you saw us score on. I think they had a plan, and it was a good plan. We had our chances, that’s for sure. We had some layups, and you’ve got to give their goalie [junior Dominic Lamolinara] a lot of credit. He made a lot of really tough saves in tight.”
*Sophomore attackman Wesley Berg, who had scored 12 goals in the team’s first two NCAA tournament games, was shut out by Syracuse sophomore defenseman Sean Young and did not take a single shot. Tierney said it was evident that the Orange paid a lot of attention to Berg. “We tried some things that we’ve been doing well all year,” Tierney said. “The beauty of Wes was that he didn’t say, ‘Give me the ball anyway. I’m just going to take a bad shot.’ … When they took away Wes, [senior midfielder] Cam [Flint] and [junior midfielder] Jeremy [Noble] and some of those other guys had to do their jobs. I just think it came down to their goalie making saves when he had to. The kid’s 19 years old and he has a couple of great days and maybe today wasn’t his day.”
*In Denver’s first two NCAA tournament appearances, the team bowed out in the first round both times. Under Tierney, who took over prior to the 2010 season, the Pioneers have qualified for four postseasons, advancing to two semifinals and one quarterfinal. Tierney said that background should easily motivate the next crop of players. “I think it’s one of the nice things about being a new program,” he said. “You don’t have a history to live up to. You have a history that can continually get better. It’s always a sad thing for me because most of the time, you lose at the end of the year. The sad thing for me is the seniors. That group, when I came to Denver four years ago, we had 12 players on the roster the first day I was there. This group was incoming. There was 12 of them – really, 11 because Eric Law transferred. But they have bought into everything we’ve asked them. Some have changed positions, some have worked extremely hard, some have fought through injuries. So perspective 15, 20 minutes after a tough loss like that is maybe even tougher, but they’re young people. They’ll wake up tomorrow morning and they’ll still be disappointed, but they’ll want to know what’s for breakfast and they’ll move on. … Now we have some goals to set. Somebody has to be better than four straight tournaments, two Final Fours out of four years. Look around. Not many of them have been doing that. So they’re doing great.”