PHILADELPHIA -- Fourteen years after his last national championship at Princeton and six years after crossing the Mississippi River to embrace the challenge of building a national power virtually from scratch, Bill Tierney is finally back coaching on the final day of championship weekend.
Delivering Denver to the final game of the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse season speaks plenty about the national growth of the sport, but perhaps moreso to the venerable coach’s ability to build yet another enduring national power.
Having shed the novelty of being a western team succeeding on lacrosse’s biggest stage, Tierney’s Pioneers needed to shed another label this weekend at Lincoln Financial Field: Being able to advance past the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship final four after its season ended in three of the previous four semifinals.Mission accomplished. After fourth-seeded Denver held on for dear life after squandering a four-goal lead in the final four minutes of regulation before securing an 11-10 overtime victory against No. 1 Notre Dame, becoming one half of Monday’s championship matchup against sixth-seeded Maryland, there was no need for Tierney and his team to give another close-but-not-quite concession speech during their post-game presser.
“First of all, we feel really good about being able to play on Monday,” Tierney said. “But I think a lot was made out of this. It’s as if we were a bad program because we didn't make it to Monday.
“We are talking about a team that made four of the last Final Fours, a group of young men that nobody recruited except for us. And we just have something special going. Now, to move into [the championship game], it's certainly a little relieving but not because of the thing that you worry about, ‘Oh, are they always going to be a semifinalist.’
“There's nothing wrong with it. If you're a semifinalist, you're a top-four team in the country. We weren't worried about that. I know what kind of people we've got, what kind of young men we've got.”
When Tierney arrived in the Rocky Mountains for the 2009-10 season after 22 years and six national championships at Princeton, Denver counted only two NCAA losses among its 11 seasons playing Division I ball. No one knew if he could attract recruits or win at a level like he did on the east coast.
Immediately, the Pioneers reached the NCAA tournament, the first of six consecutive invites under their sixth-year coach. There was the surprise trip to the 2011 semifinals, then the more expected visits the previous two seasons.
Even before breaking through Saturday afternoon, Tierney had already built an enviable program at Denver that extended beyond national rankings. Junior Jack Pruitt became his third player in four seasons to receive the NCAA’s Elite 89 award given to the student-athlete possessing the highest grade point average at each of the NCAA’s 89 championship sites. And a flight attendant told Tierney his squad was the nicest group of young men he had encountered in his 25 years of service.
“Those are the things that make you feel like we're doing something pretty special here,” Tierney said.
On Monday afternoon, Denver can do something special and make history as the first team west of the Mississippi to win the Walnut and Bronze in men’s lacrosse.
Regardless of outcome, the Pioneers are already the first western team to play for the sport’s national championship after surviving a furious Notre Dame comeback when senior Wesley Berg scored his 53rd goal of the season 2:03 into extra time.
“I mean, it's amazing for the program to get past that step,” senior goalie Ryan LaPlante said. “We don't want to stop there. It's been our ultimate goal to win the national championship since we got to school in September. We just want to work for that on Monday and we have one game to do it.”
Said Berg: “It's another step forward. We haven't been here yet. But the most important thing is winning the next one and winning it all. That's what we're here for.”
This is why Tierney headed west after 22 years at Princeton. Having already built an enduring national power, he is hoping to celebrate his first national championship since 2001 this Monday.
“It's not about me and Princeton or me and Denver,” Tierney said. “It's about this group of young people that are striving to reach to top the peak.”