Bill Tierney has spent more than 20 years as a college head coach; his resume includes six NCAA Championships and eight NCAA final appearances. So he knows a thing or two about being a gracious host at tournament time, which has definitely helped this weekend as his Denver Pioneers host the ECAC Lacrosse tournament.
“Having been blessed to be in a lot of tournaments in my career,” Tierney said, “what you want to make sure is that the other teams feel good about having been here, and I think that’s really important. Our staff does a great job to make sure that we have good locker rooms, that the field is ready for the practice times, and everything that we need to make sure it’s a good experience for the student-athlete, and I think we’ve done that. Once the games start, of course, all you want is your own team to win.”
The No. 6 Pioneers got to a great start taking care of business in that regard on Thursday night, coming back from a 1-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter to score an 11-4 win over Ohio State in the conference semifinal, advancing to Sunday’s championship game against Fairfield, where the Pioneers will look to defend their ECAC title.
“It’s really nice to be able to play out here,” said sophomore midfielder Chase Carraro, who scored a pair of goals for the Pioneers. “We feel like we have a good home field advantage, and for these teams to have to travel so far to play us – and for us to also be in our regular schedule, where we can sleep in our own beds, eat what we usually eat, and do that type of stuff – it’s nice for us to have that home field advantage.”
If Carraro and his teammates have their way about it, the hosting experience this weekend will be a dry run for next weekend and the first round of the 2011 NCAA Championship tournament. Projections have the Pioneers as one of the eight teams that will host a first round game next weekend, with the winners advancing to the following weekend’s quarterfinals at Hoftra’s Shuart Stadium and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
If Denver gets that opportunity, it will be a one-shot deal, with an entire week after the first round to prepare for the quarterfinal should they win. This weekend is a bit tougher, as the Pioneers have no time to savor their win over the Buckeyes, as they have just a day to turn around and prepare for the Stags, who edged Loyola to earn the other spot in Saturday’s championship game.
“You win a game, usually, you’re really happy,” Carraro said. “You’re in that celebratory mode, but not now. We’ve got to keep our nose to the ground and keep on grinding.”
Still, having taken his Princeton teams to 10 national semifinals in 22 years before heading west to build the program at Denver, Tierney knows that this is a valuable experience for his team.
“This is why we play our tournament back in March,” Tierney said. “We play Satuday-Sunday, without even a day’s rest, and when they get through with that, they need a few days off and a rest. If they’re going to go to the places we dream about going in this program, which will be to a final four, someday they may have to play Saturday and Monday for the big one. This is all preparation for those kinds of days, and hopefully, this puts us in a good spot for the NCAA tournament.”
The truth is, every challenge is an opportunity to learn and build, and that’s been particularly true this season in the Pioneers’ midfield. Injuries to the likes of senior Andrew Lay and junior Patrick Rogers, who combined for 32 goals and 10 assists last season, hurt the Pioneers, but those injuries created opportunities for sophomores like Carraro, Eric Law and Cameron Flint, who have combined for 46 goals and 21 assists this season.
“Cam Flint, he’s a bear to cover,” Tierney said. “Jeremy [Noble] is quick, and Chase Carraro is one of the best athletes in Division I lacrosse, and now you’re throwing in guy’s like Law, and now Lay is back. It’s nice to know you’ve got midfielders who can score if they’re shutting down Demopoulos and Mark Matthews.”
Tierney feels that the two biggest beneficiaries of the added playing time were two midfielders with nine goals and an assist between them.
“You never want people to get hurt,” Tierney said, “but after Andrew Lay and Patrick Rogers were hurt, those young guys got a lot more time. I’d say the two guys that got the most benefit from that were Hayden Schuette and Harrison Archer. It’s just now that they’ve gotten that experience, they’re not in awe when they go out there.”
Having been to the NCAA tournament after winning the ECAC Lacrosse title last year, the Pioneers aren’t likely to be in awe if they’re in the field again this year. However, they’re eager for a new tournament experience: the comforts of home.
So far, so good.