After his Denver team got its second win on Long Island this season – a 14-9 victory against Johns Hopkins this past Saturday that clinched a trip to Baltimore for this weekend’s NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship – Pioneers head coach Bill Tierney was reminded of the first.
“After the Duke game,” Tierney said of his team’s 12-9 win against the reigning NCAA champions on April 9, “one of the reporters said, ‘Oh, just think. Now you can recruit good players.’ I looked at the roster and said, ‘We’ve got some pretty good players, and we’re from 20 different states.”
Indeed, when the Pioneers took the field at Hofstra’s James Shuart Stadium on Saturday, their starting lineup included players from Minnesota, Colorado, Ohio and Kentucky – hardly traditional lacrosse hotbeds – with players from Indiana and Tennessee on their way next season. Denver’s lineup also includes players from Maryland, New Jersey New England and Canada – Georgetown, Ontario native Cameron Flint shared the team goal-scoring lead with Eden Prairie, Minnesota’s Todd Baxter – but as the sport of lacrosse continues to grow and expand, it’s not insignificant that the only team that qualified for the 16-team tournament without any players from Long Island is one of the last four teams standing.
“Little kids playing with lacrosse sticks, it allows them to dream, when they see a team like Denver going into the final four,” Tierney said, “or a team like Michigan coming into Division I. We’re thrilled if we have anything to do with good feelings and the spread of our game in a positive way.”
As new and exciting as Denver’s run to the championship weekend has been, the Pioneers success is largely rooted in the principles that made Tierney’s 22-year tenure at Princeton such a success, capped off by NCAA titles in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2001. Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala, whom Tierney recruited to play for the Blue Jays during his three-year tenure as an assistant coach, recognizes the hallmarks of the Tierney-coached teams he’s faced during his 10 years at the helm of the Blue Jays.
“There are certain similarities,” Pietramala said after Saturday’s game, “and then I would say on the other hand I think they’re really different. There is no comparison offensively; they’re a different group. They don’t play the way they played at Princeton. He’s got a group of Canadians on that team. I think he’s taken the reins off them much more than he did his Princeton teams, except when he had [Jesse] Hubbard and [Chris] Massey. I think his offensive coordinator has done a really good job. I admire what he’s done with that group and where he’s put them. But, like a Bill Tierney-coached team, they play their asses off. They’re disciplined. They don’t beat themselves, and that’s consistent with him in general.”
That offensive coordinator, Matt Brown, is a 2005 alum of Denver who joined the coaching staff as a volunteer in 2007. He has spent the last two summers playing professionally for the Denver Outlaws in the Major League Lacrosse. A native of British Columbia, Brown has been instrumental in incorporating techniques from the indoor game played widely in Canada into Tierney’s style of play, producing an offense that averages more goals per game than any other team at this weekend’s championship.
“We’re not a Canadian style of play,” Tierney said. “We’re not an American style of play. We’re some sort of mix of all that. What a great coach does is, he takes his talent, evaluates his talent, he puts the guys in the right spot and puts them in the best position to use the talent and help the team, and that’s what Matt has done.”
It sounds simple, but the blending of different backgrounds and styles can be tricky, both on and off the field. Meeting that challenge has been one of the key accomplishments of Tierney’s staff over the last two seasons, and one of the biggest reasons why the Pioneers are headed to Baltimore.
“The biggest challenge came in getting them all to come together emotionally and mentally, to believe in us: that we had their best interests at heart, that we were going to build this program the right way, through discipline, education and hard work, and it didn’t matter where you were from. They’ve bought into this full tilt. It took a little while, but it does show you that kids are kids, and if they want to play lacrosse, and if they want to work hard in school, it doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
Geographic differences aside, Tierney sees similarities to his first NCAA championship team with the Tigers, the team that opened the season with a loss to Hopkins, but wound up beating Maryland, North Carolina and Syracuse to capture the title in Philadelphia.
“The biggest difference is having a three-hour plane ride instead of a 45-minute ride to Philadelphia, like we did in ‘92,” Tierney said, “but it’s a similar group of young men, and I think that’s what’s most important. These guys have just believed and taken this ‘Oh, it’s just Princeton’ or ‘Oh, it’s just Denver’ attitude and just…been very businesslike. They’re such a pleasant group to work with. They work hard, and they’re enjoying this thing. There’s actually a little bit of a…I don’t know if it’s a naïveté or a dumb confidence, but it’s there, and it’s very similar.”
Whether that confidence will produce a similar result, but there’s one thing that’s certain about these Pioneers: they know how to break new ground.