In 1971, Cornell was crowned NCAA champion in Division I lacrosse. To say the trophy has remained on the East Coast since is a bit of an understatement. A rundown of the annual winners shows nobody west of the Appalachians.

This weekend, Denver head coach Bill Tierney will try to extend that line to the Rocky Mountains. If anybody is capable of wrestling away NCAA hardware from Eastern schools, it is Tierney, a man who built Princeton lacrosse into a powerhouse.

“There’s a lot of times where you think of things like that,” Tierney said. “You kind of can’t think of history when you’re going through it. All you really think about is your players, your staff, your team, your opponent, their players and their staff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying what would be the importance of a team from this far out of the East Coast to win a national championship; I certainly want and hope that happens, but as you’re preparing for it, you’re not saying to your kids you’ve got to do this for the sake of lacrosse.

“If we’re blessed and something good happens this weekend, then we’ll talk about history.”

Denver senior Eric Law, a Colorado native, started his career at Division III powerhouse Salisbury in Maryland before transferring back home. He has tallied a team-leading 75 points in 2013 to lead the Pioneers.

“We’re still trying to make our mark, to prove that great lacrosse can be played west of the Mississippi,” Law said.

Denver and Syracuse square off in one of two NCAA semifinals on Saturday in Philadelphia. The winner takes on the Cornell-Duke victor on Monday for the 2013 NCAA Division I Lacrosse Championship.

There is plenty of history between Tierney and the Orange. In 1992, Princeton beat Syracuse in double overtime in the NCAA final. It was Tierney’s fifth season as head coach and completed a massive turnaround of a program that won just 12 of 58 games in the four years prior to his arrival.

The 2001 championship saw the Tigers beat the Orange in overtime for the title. A year later Syracuse and head coach John Desko beat Princeton for the championship. It marked the third consecutive year Desko and Tierney squared off in the NCAA finals -- Desko’s first NCAA title came in 2000 at the expense of the Tigers. Desko took over for legendary Roy Simmons as Orange head coach in 1999.

Overall, Princeton and Syracuse squared off 10 times during Tierney’s tenure at the New Jersey school -- five with Desko as an assistant for the Orange. Seven of the meetings occurred in either the NCAA semifinals or finals.
After coaching Princeton to six NCAA titles, including back-to-back-to-back from 1996-98, Tierney headed west for Colorado and a school with very little lacrosse history. The first order of business was to put his program on the field against the best competition -- Syracuse.

“Stepping back and considering how many times John Desko and I have been on opposite sidelines in these [championships], it’s truly amazing,” Tierney said. “Being new to Denver, our kids, they don’t get all of this.

“When I took the [Denver] job, one of the first calls I made was to John. I said, ‘These guys need to know what it’s going to take to be a championship team. I want their first experience to be against you in the Carrier Dome because there’s nothing more daunting than that.’ We were down 7-0 early; it was pretty daunting. Our senior class, the first game they played was against Syracuse in the Dome. Hopefully, the last game they play isn’t against Syracuse.”

We’re still trying to make our mark, to prove that great lacrosse can be played west of the Mississippi.
-- Eric Law

“He needed to get exposure for his team, and I think he’s always been one to play the best schedule that he can play to prepare his team just for this time of the year,” Desko said. “I consider Bill a friend, and we got him on the schedule … it’s been fun to watch his team grow and get better.”

Denver lacrosse certainly has grown, advancing to the NCAA semifinals in 2011, just two seasons into Tierney’s stay in the Mile High city.

The Syracuse coach expects another battle with his old foe on Saturday.

“I think they’re a difficult team to prepare for, especially with their offense,” Desko said. “They’ve got a few Canadians running out there, box-style players; until you experience it, it’s a different type of player to cover, and it’s a different team than his Princeton teams as far as the style of defense they play.

“It’s a little different than what I’m used to with a Bill Tierney team.”

Good coaches need good players to be successful. Tierney certainly has recruited players from the East Coast -- 18 roster members are from Eastern states -- but the veteran coach also has added players from Canada, Texas, Indiana, Montana and California, among others.

“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,” Tierney 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.”