May 10, 2011

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Tuesdays with Corey: What an NCAA Tournament Game in Denver Means for Lacrosse

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com


Denver lost to Notre Dame 10-9 on March 12 in front of a record crowd of 2,547 fans at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium -- site of the Pioneers' first-round clash with Villanova, the first-ever NCAA tournament game west of the Mississippi.

© Trevor Brown

Denver, Colorado. Oh, the fresh air. The snow-capped mountains in the summer. The outdoor lifestyle. The residents who all seem to be from someplace else originally.

Lacrosse is from someplace else originally, too, being a game that has so often migrated westward across the United States on the backs of East Coast transplants.

Turns out the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament wasn't far behind.

Pioneers. That's Denver's mascot -- fitting, really, given the circumstances that will unfold there this weekend.

Denver, coached by a Hall of Famer, former Princeton coach and native Long Islander Bill Tierney, will host the first-ever NCAA lacrosse tournament game west of the Mississippi River when the sixth-ranked Pioneers welcome Villanova to the Mountain time zone Sunday. This "first-ever" fact shouldn't be understated, or thought of as simply a nice statement tossed around to highlight the general growth of the game of lacrosse.

This really is a big deal.

"I think it truly is significant," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said Sunday night, moments after responding to an unrelated question by saying he didn't want to get too profound on topics that don't deserve it. (So, clearly, he thought Denver hosting a tournament game was important.)

"It's a signal to people that the game is growing, and in an area where it really is growing," Starsia said. "We have a number of players coming this way from Colorado in the next couple years. People keep anecdotally talking about the growth of lacrosse, but we also have some tangible evidence that that's actually the case with situations like this."

It's just Year Two of the Tierney Experiment at Denver, and it's going quite well. The coach should get credit for quickly bringing the program to two straight NCAA tournaments in his first two years as coach — with players that weren't his recruits originally, and at a place where Tierney says no opposing teams want to travel to play during the regular season.

Notre Dame visited there this spring, and left with a one-goal, 10-9 victory earned in front of a record crowd of 2,547 fans at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium. Despite the loss, that game was a landmark moment for his team, Tierney said.

"The only thing that was bad about Saturday night was [Notre Dame] ended up with more goals than us. We gave an unbelievable effort, we had a big-time crowd, and the speed and intensity of the game were really high," Tierney said afterward.

Now here comes another mile-high moment Sunday.

Villanova didn't choose to fly out to Colorado this weekend. The Wildcats were forced to by the NCAA men's lacrosse selection committee by virtue of Denver's solid season (13-2 with losses to Syracuse and Notre Dame).

It's just one game. Someone will win, and someone will lose, and the result might be lucky, as it sometimes is in lacrosse. Maybe Canadian Mark Matthews will showcase his array of offensive skills, or maybe Villanova long stick midfielder Brian Karalunas will present too much of a disruption to the Pioneers' offensive flow.

But in the greater scheme, the fact that this game will be played in Denver suggests the lid on Division I men's lacrosse growth

may be just about ready to pop like the cover to a bowl of soup left in the microwave for too long.

Denver's first Division I season was in 1999 under coach Jamie Munro, and the foundation for the present success was laid with winning seasons in six of Munro's final seven seasons and an NCAA tournament berth in 2008.

But in just his second season, Tierney has already brought Denver to heights it's never reached. It's the type of success that, paired with how great a spokesperson Tierney is for the growth of the game in general, can only help open the eyes of athletic directors and universities that, sorry, lacrosse fans, may still not know what lacrosse is, or how popular we all know it is.

Notre Dame was the last "FBS" university to add an NCAA men's lacrosse team — 30 years ago in 1981.

"I have said for 20 years that there are only two ways the 'Lacrosse Explosion' will happen," Tierney wrote in an email last week. "[One], if the president of the United States or some other very influential government figure has a son that plays lacrosse, and they look into changing the interpretation of Title IX... [Two], the growth of the game at the youth and high school level just becomes so overwhelming that it can no longer be ignored by the administrators of the schools in the big conferences."

But some eyes are beginning to open. Just last week, LaxMagazine.com reported that USC, yes the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is considering adding a varsity men's lacrosse team. It would join the new USC Division I women's program that was announced in November and is scheduled to play for the 2012-13 season. A Division I men's team at USC would be the first in the Western time zone.

"We recognize how fast the sport is growing, and the popularity from youth lacrosse all the way up," said USC senior associate athletic director Mark Jackson. "We launched women's lacrosse, and hopefully men's lacrosse is somewhere in our future."

And going back several years, there have been rumors and reports that Michigan — in all its deep-pocketed, Big Ten athletic department glory — is prepared to add a Division I men's program. That speculation continues.

Although no official announcement has been made, the sense among some coaches is that Michigan is a done deal. Tierney, in fact, said at a press conference a few weeks ago that Michigan would be an ECAC member and play the Pioneers next season at a time and place to be determined.

"We're talking about big-time athletics now," Tierney said. "To see a Michigan make this kind of commitment, it's really exciting to all of us. We're hoping this really opens some eyes to some athletic departments, ADs, some people who think out of the box on how to solve the Title IX issues, because lacrosse is not going away."

Starsia, another of the long-toothed men's lacrosse thinkers, said Michigan going varsity would be "probably the biggest news in our sport perhaps since the final four concept."

"If one of these BCS schools actually adds men's lacrosse and a school like Michigan, as prestigious as Michigan, [it] would be a signal to athletic directors that maybe this is possible. That's a really big deal," Starsia said.

Starsia followed with, "On a slightly smaller scale, a playoff game happening in Denver, Colorado, is also good for our sport."

The more exposure the sport gets will help its growth. Lacrosse fans know how exciting the game can be at its highest level. The key is getting others to realize it.

In college at Penn State, I spent time around the club hockey program and its coach by the name of Joe Battista. JoeBa, as he was affectionately known, just went about his business, showing great enthusiasm every night on the bench and in the crowd. He was responsible for selling sponsorships and keeping the program running financially as well.

At a few games, there was a Penn State alum and self-made billionaire in the crowd named Terry Pegula, who brought his son to watch. They saw JoeBa, his enthusiasm and the program performing well on the ice. What they didn't know was that JoeBa's dream was one day to take the club hockey program to the D-I level. He'd come close before over 20 or so years, but circumstances or the wrong timing led to failure. The last-ditch effort was to secure a big money donation.

JoeBa and Pegula met for dinner one night and hit it off. An $88 million dollar donation later from Terry and his wife, Kim, and Penn State is building a new ice facility in State College, and will have men's and women's Division I ice hockey teams beginning in 2012-13. Pegula later bought the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, a deal that included ownership of the National Lacrosse League's Buffalo Bandits.

My point is you never know who is watching; who will be turned on to the game — lacrosse, hockey, competitive eating, whatever — by seeing it in a new place or at new venue, such as Sunday at 5:15 p.m. Mountain time at Peter Barton stadium in a game televised on ESPNU.

"I have said for 20 years that there are only two ways the 'Lacrosse Explosion' will happen," Tierney wrote in an email last week. "[One], if the president of the United States or some other very influential government figure has a son that plays lacrosse, and they look into changing the interpretation of Title IX, so as to eliminate football from the 'equality equation,' since there is no women's sport that can numerically match up to [100] male football players. [Two], the growth of the game at the youth and high school level just becomes so overwhelming that it can no longer be ignored by the administrators of the schools in the big conferences. I'm not sure the former idea currently has much hope, but I do think the latter is happening."

A playoff game in Denver, Colorado only helps growth along. How many more new players, teams and coaches will Sunday's game spawn?


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