Going west, Tierney puts Denver on lacrosse map

Former Princeton coach gave Pioneers instant credibility

May 26, 2011|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

Minutes after what would prove to be a season-defining victory for the Denver men's lacrosse team over reigning national champion Duke last month, on April 9, in Bethpage, N.Y., a reporter congratulated Pioneers coach Bill Tierney by telling him that the win would attract talented players from the Long Island hotbed.

"I kind of looked at the roster and said, 'We've got some pretty good players. We've got guys from 20 different states,'" Tierney said as a smile creased his face. "It's all part of what we're going through."

As one of a few Division I programs west of the Mississippi River, Denver gets comments like those kinds kind of comments often. The school has qualified for four NCAA tournaments in six years, but it's often viewed as the new kid on the block, content to be invited to the party.

As part of a final four that includes No.5 seed Duke, No.7 seed Virginia and unseeded Maryland, the sixth-seeded Pioneers are just two wins away from a national championship. They meet Virginia in the first semifinal Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.

As one of just four teams left in the NCAA tournament, the No. 6 seed Pioneers (15-2) have the same credible shot at capturing the national championship as No. 5 seed Duke, unseeded Maryland and No. 7 seed Virginia – Denver's opponent in the first semifinal on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium – have.

"We believe that we can do it, and when other people don't, that is strictly motivation to prove them wrong," sophomore midfielder Cameron Flint said after the team knocked off No. 3 seed Johns Hopkins, 14-9, in the quarterfinals on Saturday. "I know that everyone on our team thinks the same. We are the underdog in every game. We're not expected to win, and that drives us even harder to try to prove everybody else wrong."

Denver has made a believer out of ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, who called the team's showing against the Blue Jays the most impressive performance of the quarterfinals.

"Denver played with a lot of confidence, and they did not look like a green and inexperienced team," said Dixon, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder. "Now, of course, this will be M&T Bank Stadium, and there will probably be at least 40,000 people there on Saturday. How will they react to that?

"But I think having Bill Tierney as their head coach gives them that comfort level. He's been there before. Trevor, his son and defensive coordinator, has been there before. So they're one of the four teams standing, and I think based on their performance from this past Saturday, this team has no fear. They look strong."

Indeed, a good portion of the Pioneers' success this season can be traced to the program's wooing of Tierney, who guided Princeton to six NCAA championships crowns before moving west after the 2009 season.

Denver had just completed a campaign during which sophomore attackman Jamie Lincoln, junior midfielder Ilija Gajic and senior midfielder Brad Richardson were dismissed in late March and coach Jamie Munro resigned two months later. It was a program yearning for new leadership, according to junior attackman Mark Matthews.

"It's tough to explain, especially after our freshmen freshman year when we were struggling," he recalled. "Coming in, Coach gave us a new slate and gave everybody a new chance. It's been nothing but up from there."

Tierney, a defensive guru who developed a reputation as a tempo-slowing manager, has departed from his usual style and allowed both his son and defensive coordinator, Trevor Tierney, and offensive coordinator Matt Brown and defensive coordinator Trevor Tierney, Bill Tierney's son, a certain degree of freedom to shape their units.

"When I went out to Denver, it was rejuvenation for me," Bill Tierney said. "It was new life for me. I don't know why I'm so blessed. But I do know that these guys have just jumped on board. Maybe they talk about it behind our backs thinking that we're crazy, but we've been saying for years, 'If you don't dream big dreams, you'll never reach anything.' They're allowing us to dream by having the ability that they do."

The Pioneers are the only team in the final four making its first appearance in the national semifinals, but senior defenseman Jeff Brown said the players won't be intimidated.

"I think we're doing a good job of taking it one game at a time, and this is just one more team we're going to play," he said. "I think we've been doing a good job of respecting our opponents, but we're not going to back down from them."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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