PHILADELPHIA -- Bill Tierney settled into his seat in the interview room, leaned into the microphone before him and exhaled. Six seasons after he traded the Ivy League for the Rocky Mountains, all of the questions about Denver's ability to deliver in a championship environment were finally and emphatically answered.
No longer will Tierney or his team be questioned about three losses in the previous four national semifinals. Denver’s 10-5 victory against Maryland before 24,215 on Monday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field rewrote its history, culminating an historic and celebratory day for its program, its coach and the sport itself.
After a brilliant five-goal performance from senior and Most Outstanding Player Wesley Berg, the fourth-seeded Pioneers (16-2) became the first team outside of the eastern time zone to win the Walnut and Bronze. Meanwhile, Tierney became the Division I first coach to capture titles at two different schools, adding to the six he won in 22 seasons at Princeton before moving west for the 2010 season.“We wouldn't have admitted it beforehand,” Tierney said to start his presser, “but just like Wes carried us on his back for a few games [this weekend], I feel like we were carrying a burden around and now it's off.”After Tierney moved west of the Mississippi on a leap of faith he could construct another national power, he and his coaching staff convinced he likes of Berg, senior goalie Ryan LaPlante and so many other standouts to do the same.
Berg admitted, “It’s been a long journey,” and rightfully so after he and his teammates encountered so many postseason roadblocks: a 10-9 loss to eventual champion Loyola (Md.) in the 2012 quarterfinals, a 9-8 setback against Syracuse on this very same field to end 2013. A 15-12 defeat against another eventual titlist, Duke, last May.
That narrative nearly continued in Saturday’s semifinals when the Pioneers squandered a four-goal advantage in the final four-plus minutes of regulation before Berg rescued them with his game-winning goal 2:03 into overtime.
“This year, we were one goal away from losing again and we stuck to it and things went our way this time,” Berg said. “And it's probably because of all the perseverance we had and all the confidence we had in our team and the depth we had this year.”
Just as Berg finished one of the finest careers in NCAA lacrosse history, LaPlante ensured Denver would make history with perhaps his finest performance yet between the pipes. Among his 13 saves came a brilliantly instinctive one that denied No. 6 Maryland (15-4) from pulling within 5-4 a few seconds before halftime, ensuring that the opposition never truly threatened again.
“It’s just unbelievable the growth in the program since Coach T moved out to Denver,” LaPlante said. “Just unbelievable to see where things have went and how we've made it to the playoffs every year, me and Wesley's four years here.
“This just took it to the next level and it just shows how good of a coaching staff we have and just the support that we have from the university.”
Denver’s championship breakthrough further showed the growth of the sport outside of the east coast, and the potential for further expansion. Michigan and Marquette are the westernmost programs to have added the sport in recent seasons, which prompted Tierney to put on “my old man lacrosse hat” before stumping for his game’s continued growth.
“We showed that with the great people at a university, the support, a great university where kids get great degrees and are called upon to be students, I'm hoping with that other hat on other people say, ‘Let's do this thing,’” Tierney said. “It's pretty cool.”
After looking off into the future, Tierney and his student-athletes returned to the here and now. Most admitted the feeling of finally winning a national championship to be surreal and something that will sink in over the coming days and weeks.
Tierney and his team could finally smile and exhale. Six years after their coach traded the Ivy League for the Rocky Mountains, all of the questions about whether the Denver Pioneers could win a men’s lacrosse national championship were finally and emphatically answered.