PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Princeton head coach Bill Tierney is the equalizer when it comes to the series against Syracuse. The Orangemen have the great athletes, the Tigers have Tierney.
He might be the biggest whiner in the game, but yesterday he again distinguished himself as the best coach in college lacrosse. Not just because Princeton defeated Syracuse, 10-9, in sudden-death overtime to give him a sixth NCAA Division I championship, but because his game-day strategies and methodical approach are just as impeccable.
Princeton (14-1) should have lost to Syracuse (13-3) at Rutgers University yesterday. The Orangemen have a much richer tradition, better athletic talent and more marquee players at key positions, and they had loads of confidence after beating Princeton, 14-8, earlier this season. Plus, the Orangemen seldom lose in May.
But Princeton has Tierney, a devout Christian who becomes a fiery competitor on game day. With one day or two weeks to prepare, he is tough to beat.
He prefers the deliberate offense and basic, solid defense over Syracuse's transition game and gambling defense.
Princeton's style won out yesterday. Most of the credit has to be given to Tierney.
"To be honest, today, we knew that if we played them 10 times, they would probably win seven or eight of them," said Tierney. "We were hoping that today would be the ninth or 10th."
"There are a lot of great players out there, a lot of great coaches," he said, smiling. "I just pray a lot harder than the other coaches."
Tierney caused a lot of problems for Syracuse yesterday, and solved a lot of problems they had caused other teams. Tierney's presence was evident right from the beginning. His team reflects his personality.
Syracuse came onto the field fired up, banging heads. The Orangemen were extremely emotional. Princeton's team came out calm but confident. Almost businesslike. The Tigers exploded on the opening whistle. Just like their coach. The Orangemen offense was a batch of missed passes and poor clears for three quarters.
Syracuse's high-powered transition game had been one of the most feared, but Princeton brought it to a near crawl. Syracuse was shut out in the first quarter, and had three goals in the second. Meanwhile, Tierney's Tigers controlled the pace except for the fourth quarter when Syracuse outscored Princeton, 5-1, to send the game into overtime.
But with the patient offense, the Tigers waited until they got the short-stick, midfield matchups they wanted behind the goal, especially in the first half. Syracuse was too slow sliding off the crease. Attackman Matt Striebel had two goals. Midfielder Brad Dumont had two more.
Princeton had a 5-3 lead at the half and control of the game.
Advantage Princeton and Tierney.
Tierney also used senior defenseman Ryan Mollett and his long stick to catch passes and clear the ball at midfield as the Tigers were 22 of 31 on clears.
He also took Syracuse attackman Michael Springer, the team's top-goal scorer, out of the game. Tierney put defenseman Scott Farrell on Springer, and then had his short-stick midfielders lend support. Springer didn't have a goal or an assist; he scored twice against Princeton earlier this season.
"We came up with a game plan we hadn't used before," said Farrell. "We never used to slide off of him. We used more help on him than we had in the past."
That's another Tierney strength. Not too many teams beat him once in the season. Even less beat him twice.
But if you really wanted to see the influence Tierney has on his team, look into the fourth quarter. With the score tied 8-8 after a Syracuse goal, Orangemen midfielder Jason Januszkiewicz was called for a 30-second holding penalty on a wraparound check of Princeton defenseman Damien Davis with 6:45 left in the game.
Thirty-two seconds later, Princeton attackman B. J. Prager scored an extra-man goal for a 9-8 lead.
It's hard to predict what a college player will do in any situation, but the guess here is that a Princeton player wouldn't have committed the foul.
They don't believe in wraparound checks. Secondly, they would have played more for position and used a correct pursuit angle instead of gambling, and losing.
Those are the little things that make teams sound. Those are the little things that make good coaches great.
Here's another one: Ground balls. Syracuse had a 57-56 advantage, but Princeton picked up most of the key ones. The Tigers outhustled Syracuse on the defensive side of the ball.
That's another Tierney trademark. Opposing teams usually don't outwork the Tigers.
"If I can wrestle up master plans, I should be doing something other than coaching lacrosse," said Tierney.
Nah. Right now, Tierney is in the class with former Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., the only coach to win six Division I titles. There's not much left for Tierney except to improve his behavior on the sidelines.
A dedicated family man who likes riding around in an old station wagon, he becomes a mad man on game day. His tirades are legendary, those little stumpy legs stomping up and down the sidelines.
Tierney wants to win every call. He complains even when he wins. He works officials as hard as Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, but is more out of control. It's really not needed. It's a stain on a career that is headed to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, a resume that makes him one of the best in college lacrosse.
And maybe by the time he is finished, the best ever.