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Anatomy of a Comeback : Denver Pioneers

The Denver at Hopkins game on Saturday featured a handful of complex situational lacrosse scenarios. The tactical portion of the last four minutes and overtime proved to be critical to the outcome and is worthy of analysis. For coaches and players, these nuanced moments are worthy of study and practice. They often decide big games amongst evenly matched teams.

Denver showed terrific Situational Awareness

Take a look at the Denver win probability. How does this turnaround occur? Let’s dive in.

With 4:06 remaining in the contest, Jonathan Peshko scored to give Hopkins a 12-9 lead. Jays were in control, on the cusp of victory.

Denver wins the next face-off and JJ Sillstrop scores a magical one-handed wrap around dive shot from X to make it 12-10 with 3:29 to play. Hopkins is called for a penalty on the possession, so the ensuing face-off is a man-up vs. man-down face-off with uneven wing allotment.

Denver FOGO Alec Stathakis easily wins the draw to his solo winger but DU turns the ball over. JHU clears the ball well while man-down and settles into an offensive possession, now all even and up 12-10 with 2:20 to play.

Hopkins plays conservatively and turns the ball over with 1:40 to go on a poorly executed possession. DU clears and generates a shot that Hopkins goalie Chasye Ierlan saves with 1:27 to play but there is a loose ball violation on the rebound against JHU and the ball stays with Denver.

Now it’s under 1:00 and DU isn’t panicking. They circle the ball repeatedly and finally get the defense on the carousel and JHU is late to a wing approach on Sillstrop, who buries a lefty shot from mid-range to make the game 12-11 with :44 seconds remaining. Hopkins defense was condensed. If they were tired, maybe a switch to zone to change things up would have been smart. Finding #5 Sillstrop a second too late would become a theme.

Late game scenarios – each team has clock, score and shot clock to manage – begs the question of when do you use a timeout to get organized?

So now it’s 12-11 JHU with :44 to play and a face-off to decide the game. Hopkins wins the face-off back towards their defensive zone and controls the ball at the top of their defensive box after a loose ball pushing violation against DU. JHU has 33 seconds to play and the ball with a fresh clearing clock. Denver rolls into a ten man ride.

Clear the ball and win.

Instead of throwing the ball back to the goalie and ragging some clock behind the net before a Gilman clear, Hopkins gets bogged down with a poorly thrown cross-field pass that’s contested and leads to a ground ball scrum that DU wins with :19 seconds to go.

Now the players are in full scramble mode. Denver hustling to tie the game and Hopkins finding matchups. With :11 seconds to play DU coach Matt Brown calls timeout.

The Pioneers draw up a final push to the net and midfielder Ty Hussey is double-teamed as he runs down the near alley. DU throws the ball out of bounds in the process.

Game over. Wait. Flag down.

Hussey is steam-rolled after his pass attempt and a 2 minute high-hit penalty is levied against JHU with 2.9 seconds to play. It’s an unreleasable foul and was a hit that didn’t need to be made, especially at crunch time in the fourth quarter of a one-goal game.

So now JHU is leading 12-11 and down a man with 2.9 seconds to play DU gets the ball outside the box from the right wing. JHU has five defenders to cover six offensive players.

Photo Credit to Denver Athletics

Denver has three options. Shoot the ball from the wing with 2.9, jam the ball to crease area using a pick or rub inside or throw the ball up top for an outside Hail Mary screen shot from distance. Hopkins chooses to play the ball carrier and somehow is tardy to their approach on JJ Sillstrop at the top of the box.

He receives the pass steps into 18 yards and beats the goalie with a left-handed stick-side bouncer to tie in the game at 12 as the clock ticks to zeros.

The Pios prayers answered. How did that just happen?

We move to sudden death and Hopkins is still down a man for the next one minute and 58 seconds.

In overtime, JHU’s Logan Callahan heroically wins the man-down Faceoff and his teammates rag the penalty clock settling for a Brooks English dive shot from X that goes wide while short handed.

Should Hopkins have been more aggressive? What are the strategy options here with the ball but with only 5 offensive players? How should Denver play defense with an extra defender? Does being in overtime change any of these strategic decisions?

Denver gets the ball, the Pios clear and coach Matt Brown calls timeout with :26 left in the JHU penalty.

Play resumes and JHU kills off the penalty as the sixth defender runs into the defensive zone from the midline. DU ball movement forces the defense to rotate, but they’re too late again, as JJ Sillstrop buries the game winner from the lefty wing. It’s his fourth consecutive goal and sixth of the day.

Somehow Denver has won this game.

Late game mistakes by the Blue Jays opened the door for this improbable comeback. Why?

Fatigue makes cowards of us all. Denver, a group that trains at altitude, apparently was in better shape than Hopkins. They played with more urgency and energy in the games final 10 minutes. JHU attackman Jacob Angelus told Ed Lee of the Baltimore Sun afterwards, “First game of the year, I think we just got a little tired at the end there, and that just can’t happen.”

Hopkins committed four penalties in the fourth quarter. They had none prior. They committed seven turnovers in the last quarter and OT. They put one shot on goal in the fourth quarter. They lost the GB battle 8-3. The stats indicate they hit the wall.

Getting tired is never a valid excuse. Fatigue impacts physical performance, mental acuity and decision making.

Hopkins needed to make one more play to win – one more save, one more ground ball, one less penalty, or one more clear and they would have clinched victory. Credit Denver for not quitting and using all of their life lines.

If you’re Hopkins, own it. Fix it. Move on. Get in shape. But never forget it.

The primary reminder from this game is that no two games are alike and there are unique situations that pop up and have to be discussed and repped by coaches and players. Specialty situations matter. Short time offense, and short time defense against the shot clock and game clock can decide games. Man-up and man-down face-offs and clearing become critical elements. Clock and timeout management are paramount to winning.

So work hard but also work to be smart and situationally ready. Win the nuanced moments with preparation, brains and execution under pressure even when you’re tired. Be ready to run for 60 minutes. And when the momentum shifts, always keep your wits.

Quint Kessenich writes for LaxAllStars and covers lacrosse for the ESPN family of networks. Towson is at Hopkins on Tuesday February 6, live at 4pm on ESPNU.