HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – In terms of history, geography and tradition, the two teams that took the field on Saturday afternoon for the second NCAA Division I quarterfinal game at James Shuart Stadium couldn’t have been more different.
On one side of the field stood Johns Hopkins, owner of 40 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (the longest such streak in any NCAA sport), 28 trips to the NCAA semifinals, 17 NCAA Championship game appearances and nine NCAA Championships. On the other side, there was Denver, making just its fourth tournament appearance, and only a week removed from its first-ever NCAA tournament win, a 13-10 victory over Villanova in the first NCAA first-round game hosted west of the Mississippi River.
The disparity wasn’t lost on Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala, and it had him concerned.
“I can tell you from experience that kids understand certain things,” Pietramala said. “They understand Syracuse. They understand Virginia. They understand Carolina. They understand teams that have won championships. This was a new team for us.”
As it turns out, Denver’s teams aren’t called the Pioneers for nothing. They scored six of the first seven goals, stood their ground when the Blue Jays charged in the second half, and advanced to the first NCAA semifinal in their program’s history by scoring a 14-9 victory against one of the sport’s most tradition-laden programs.
“Words can’t really describe it,” said freshman goalkeeper Jamie Faus. “Everyone’s just so excited. It was an awesome team effort all around.”
With runs of five and six unanswered goals in the game, the Pioneers’ play created a sense of awe among the stadium-record crowd of 13,447 that their play could not.
“I don’t think our team gave Denver the level of respect that they deserved,” the Blue Jays coach added. “Why that is, I don’t know, but I don’t think we did. I’ve seen us play other teams. You come out of the locker room, and you get a feel for your team. You watch your team practice, you watch your team warm up, and I just don’t think we, as a group, gave Denver the respect that they deserve, and that’s a shame, because we let an opportunity slip by. But make no mistake: they beat us today. They were better than us today. They deserve to be moving on.”
Still, there were moments of doubt. After the Pioneers built a 7-3 halftime lead, the Blue Jays scored four of the first five goals in the second half, as Kyle Wharton, Marshall Burkhart, Chris Boland and Phil Castronova scored to cut the Denver lead to 8-7 halfway through the third quarter. For the next two and a half minutes, the Blue Jays threatened to tie, but with 4:47 remaining in the frame, attacker Mark Matthews set Todd Baxter up for his third goal of the day to make it 9-7. Henry Miketa scored 34 seconds later to make it 10-7, and the Pioneers would score three more times to take a 13-7 lead with 10:12 remaining in the game.
“Down on the attack, we were talking about it,” Matthews said. “We need to get that ball back and settle down. We need one quick, to give our defense a little break, and we were able to get that. They switched up and got a shortstick on me, and I took him to the net and gave it to Todd and he got one. It was probably the most excited I’ve been all year when I saw Henry score that [second] goal. That picked everyone up and got them back on track.”
Hopkins scored two more goals in the final 6:20, cutting the final margin of victory to five goals, but the message had been sent: Denver is for real.
“You’re looking at Johns Hopkins University, Cornell Unviersity, the University of Virginia…and who?” Denver coach Bill Tierney said. “And so, for our guys, the biggest thing our guys have done all year is not do what’s expected. Today, I’m sure there weren’t many – except for that couple hundred in the stands that were on our side – that thought we wouldn’t be ending our season today.”
Tierney is one of the few in maroon and gold who isn’t short on championship experience, having guided Princeton to six NCAA Championships during his 22-year career as head coach of the Tigers. And, as he prepares for his first championship weekend with the Pioneers, memories of that first Tigers team are hard to avoid.
“It reminds me so much of 1992,” Tierney said, referring to his first NCAA Champion team at Princeton. “I used to tell people that in ’92, we were cute. We were everybody’s favorite, because they knew it was going to be one shot, and then we’d be out of there. Our idea is that this is the beginning of a program, and these guys have bought into everything we’ve given them in the past two seasons. They’ve not doubted. They’ve believed, and they’ve used their skills, which are varied and many, to win games like this.”
Now, they’ll look to win two more, starting with next Saturday’s NCAA semifinal game against Virginia, which scored its own upset win over Cornell on Saturday to advance.
“We’re looking forward to the (semifinals,)” Tierney said. “We’re not going to go in there and be happy just to play in it, but we certainly know and respect what we’re up against.”
And after the performance that Denver put on in Hempstead on Saturday, what the Pioneers are up against would do well to respect them, too.