May 24, 2017

DENVER (AP) For a little extra motivation, Denver senior lacrosse player Connor Cannizzaro glances toward the ice.

After all, the Pioneers hockey team did earn something this season he thoroughly covets: A national championship.

''We're trying to strive toward it,'' Cannizzaro said.

Standing in the way, top-seeded Maryland (14-3), which the Pioneers will face Saturday during a semifinal game in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It's a program Cannizzaro suited up for as a freshman before transferring to Denver.

No extra incentive, Cannizzaro insisted. That was quelled the first time he played against the Terps, in 2015, when Denver (13-3) won its first national title under Bill Tierney, the renowned coach who arrived on campus from Princeton in 2009 and turned the Pioneers into a power. The winner will face either Ohio State (15-4) or Towson (12-4) for the title on Memorial Day.

''They're a great team this year,'' said Cannizzaro, who joined Denver to reunite on the field with his older brother, Sean. ''They'll come out and give us all they've got. We're just preparing for what they have.''

Cannizzaro has been one of the focal points of a high-scoring offense this season. He averages 2.56 goals per game and has an impressive point streak of 57 straight contests - the longest active stretch in the nation.

That's no surprise to associate head coach/offensive coordinator Matt Brown, who frequently arrives at his office around 7:30 a.m. only to catch a glimpse of Cannizzaro already on the field with two buckets of lacrosse balls and practicing his shot.

''He's going all out, too,'' Brown said. ''When your most talented players are your hardest workers, it's the perfect formula for success.''

The same can be said of Trevor Baptiste, a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award that's given to the most outstanding college player. He set the pace in a 16-4 win over Notre Dame last weekend by winning 21 of 22 face-offs. With Denver constantly on offense, the Fighting Irish focused on Cannizzaro, who scored two goals. That opened up space for Austin French (four goals), along with Ethan Walker and Tyler Pace (three goals apiece).

''Connor steps up big-time when it comes to crunch time,'' sophomore midfielder Colton Jackson said. ''We're definitely banking on him to do that.''

When Cannizzaro faced the Terps on May 25, 2015, it was intense enough, given that a national title was at stake, without thinking about facing his former teammates. Both he and his brother scored in a 10-5 win.

This time, he's just trying to keep things low-key.

''Just have a great week of practice,'' said Cannizzaro, who had 26 goals while playing for Maryland in 2014. ''That's what it was last week and what we're striving for this week.''

Cannizzaro was an All-American at Cazenovia High School in New York as he finished with 284 career goals. He also was a stalwart defenseman on the hockey team.

No cravings to swap his lacrosse stick for a hockey version, though. He did, of course, root for Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher and the Pioneers hockey squad when they beat Minnesota Duluth last month for the program's eighth national crown. That served as a great deal of inspiration around a school that doesn't have a football team.

The players were driven by it, same with the coaching staff. Tierney wants to follow this season in the title-winning footsteps of hockey coach Jim Montgomery. In addition, the men's soccer team also made it to the Final Four, while Denver's ski team finished third at the NCAA championships.

''We have a small athletic program here, and we're so close with those guys,'' Tierney said. ''The athletes motivate each other, and they're great friends as well.''

Asked if he would ever want to revisit his hockey roots and join the Pioneers on the ice, Cannizzaro just laughed and said, ''No, no.''

''Lacrosse takes up most of my time,'' Cannizzaro said. ''This (making the Final Four) is really special. The freshmen coming, they look to us to lead them to the Final Four. That's just the tradition we try to establish.''

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