Currently, 19 of the top 20 lacrosse programs reside east of the Mississippi River. The one western program, nestled deep in the Rockies, is using unconventional methods and is becoming a yearly contender for the national championship.
The University of Denver moved its program up to Division I in 1999 after conducting a study on which sport could be most successful in its athletic department. The school looked at demographics, including the fastest growing sports and which sports supported the best academic students. The school came to the conclusion that a successful lacrosse team fit the bill for the Pioneers.
|WHERE THEY COME FROM|
Players on the Denver lacrosse team come from all over the country, including 16 from the East Coast. For an in-depth look at the Pioneers’ recruiting, check out the home towns of current roster members.
In Denver’s first season, the team finished with a 4-8 record. But in 2000, the Pioneers improved to 10-4. By 2006, the Pioneers made their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
In 2009, Bill Tierney was hired as head coach. Tierney had won six national championships at Princeton and had been inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2011, Tierney led Denver to a national semifinal game, losing to Virginia, which eventually captured the national championship. Currently, Tierney has a 35-12 career record for the Pioneers.
Since 1971, every national champion in Division I has come from the East Coast. Denver had to figure out a way to be competitive doing something different. So the Pioneers took a new angle on recruiting: instead of trying to recruit from the top states, they looked at every state in the country. The Pioneers’ current roster has student-athletes from 18 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces.
Some might consider recruiting East Coast student-athletes a hard sell given the 1,600 miles between Denver and the powerhouse competition, but Tierney considers it an easy sell.
“I think we get kids for different reasons … some like to ski, or snowboard, some just want to get away from home, some are looking for adventure,” he said. “We have 300 days of sunshine and a great facility; we don’t have a football team — lacrosse and hockey are our primary sports. Plus we play in the East Coast Athletic Conference which means our kids go back east two or three times a year and they’ll have a chance to visit home.”
And since Tierney draws from a pool of athletes outside the Northeast, he finds some overlooked but outstanding athletes.
“Take a kid like Chase Carraro [from Kentucky]. He might be the best player in his state, but he’s overlooked because he’s not from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic. Well, we can work with him and help him get better. Same with the kids from the Northeast — I can take the third- or fourth-ranked player and really do something with him.”
Being one of the two teams (along with Air Force) in the west means a lot of plane travel for the Pioneers. But the biggest problem is not the time spent traveling or jet lag, it’s the weather. “Humidity is our biggest problem,” Tierney said. “The guys’ hands sweat and then they have a problem holding onto their sticks. The first 30 minutes of practice can look pretty sloppy.”
Even with all the challenges the Pioneers face, they have reached the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Currently, Denver is ranked No. 16 in the most recent USILA coaches’ poll.
Lacrosse is one of the biggest sports on the rise with a number of schools adding a Division I men’s program in the near future, including:
Boston University (2013-14)
And the lacrosse experts have noticed this new powerhouse in the West: for the first time, Inside Lacrosse will hold its annual doubleheader outside the East Coast, heading to Denver on April 27. In Game 1, Penn will face defending champion Virginia and in Game 2, host Denver will face recently crowned ACC champion Duke. Both games will be played at the Sports Authority Stadium at Mile High and broadcast on ESPNU.
“This is wonderful opportunity for the city of Denver, the University of Denver and most importantly our Denver coaches and lacrosse program. In this area of the country lacrosse is just booming, and we have a top-caliber program, outstanding leadership and we want to show the rest of the country how big lacrosse is out here. We are the lacrosse capital of the west and we are so proud to have the event. Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Denver Broncos, is on the board of trustees at Denver and he is a supporter of our lacrosse program, and is generously letting us use his stadium for the event,” Denver Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation Peg Bradley-Doppes said.
The Pioneers along with coach Tierney are thrilled with the attention Denver is getting.
“We are thrilled to host this event, it’s an honor to be a part of something very special,” Tierney said. “Everyone has heard about Denver and the Inside Lacrosse people are brining their biggest event to Denver. Mr. Bowlen has given his blessing. We will do anything to make it a great event. And we want to show the NCAA committee that Denver is ready to host the NCAA championship in 2015.”