Denver Embraces Role as Interloper
by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com
Mark Matthews is the chief finisher of Denver's high-risk, high-reward offense that goes against the reputation that followed defensive-minded Bill Tierney from Princeton. But as Tierney said, "I'd be an idiot if I tried to keep these guys from scoring."
© Greg Shemitz
Maybe it was the youth of his team, or the pervasive presence of Canadians and assorted players coming from all kinds of nooks and crannies in America unattached to the East Coast. Whatever the reason, Denver University men's lacrosse coach Bill Tierney could feel the Pioneers' lack of big-time, playoff experience working in their favor, as they prepared to play storied Johns Hopkins in Denver's first trip to the NCAA tournament's quarterfinal round.
What followed was the most stunning victory of the tournament. Yes, each of the top four seeds went down. But none dropped as dramatically as No. 3 seed Hopkins, which the sixth-seeded Pioneers jumped early by scoring six of the game's first seven goals, before cruising to an easy, 14-9 victory.
It was only the biggest day in the 13-year history of Division I lacrosse at Denver, which is embracing the role of interloper in this year's NCAA tournament final four at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. There, the Pioneers (15-2) will attempt to tame blueblood Virginia in their next test.
Look out, Cavaliers. This is one loose, poised group, and the moving parts on this team obviously are impressive.
First, there is the high-powered, speedy offense that plays so well off of slick, 6-foot-4 junior lefty attackman Mark Matthews, the chief finisher, Ontario native and king of the Canadians sprinkled in the roster. There is sophomore faceoff ace Chase Carraro, out of Louisville, Ky., who does it old school by running with the first midfield. There is a steadily-improving defense, led by hot freshman goalie Jamie Faus.
What has intrigued Tierney is the way this team has handled the external stuff, while Denver has built a 12-game winning streak with an offense-first mentality that goes hard against the grain of the way Tierney authored six national championships at Princeton.
"It's almost like we are so naive that we're not smart enough to think we're supposed to lose," said Tierney, who is back in the national semifinals for the first time since 2004. "There is no air about anything with these guys. Practice today wasn't any different than when we were practicing in the cold in February.
"They are enjoying this, but they don't get caught up in any minutiae. Our kids don't know the history of the game, what Johns Hopkins means to the game. They haven't been around this thing for a hundred years."
"We're a bunch of talented players from non-lacrosse hotbeds," Carraro said. "When we go into big games, there is this feeling that we've got something to prove."
The Pioneers are proving themselves with help from every direction. Besides its home state and Canada, Denver has players from Arizona, Minnesota, California, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Washington, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri and the D.C. Next year's class will include the first-ever recruits from Indiana and Tennessee.
And the key ingredient is Tierney, who replaced program-builder Jamie Munro in 2009 after a fractious end to the Munro era. Three Canadian players, among them future Hofstra star Jamie Lincoln, were dismissed during the season for team rules violations. Another group of players temporarily quit the program.
Into the void came Tierney, looking for a challenge after ending his 22-year run at Princeton. He brought a blend of stern taskmaster and healer to the job, not to mention instant, huge credibility.
"We had good talent when I got here, but there were some other issues. Some of our kids needed to be rocked back into some discipline," Tierney said. "My new
Tierneys Back in Final Four Together
When Bill Tierney left the Princeton men's lacrosse family that
had taken 22 years to build, it helped that he had blood family
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athletic director [Peg Bradley-Doppes] told me I didn't even have to win a game for my first two years. She wanted the lacrosse program to be a positive part of the university."
The Pioneers were too stacked at the offensive end to fall by the wayside. And with Canadians such as Matthews and midfielders Cameron Flint and Jeremy Noble pushing the envelope with their hard cuts, quick feet and stick skills, Denver kept its Munro-inspired look of a hybrid – a field lacrosse squad with flashy doses of box lacrosse running through its veins. The Pioneers then got deeper and more talented.
Denver won the ECAC and reached the NCAA tournament in 2010, only to fall to Stony Brook in the first round. This spring, by the time the Pioneers had beaten Duke, 12-9, on April 9, they were on a five-game roll and heading big places in 2011.
Tierney admitted it was tough to let go of his instinctive need to play ball control while setting up the defense to make key stands in the second half. Ultimately, it came down to the cardinal rule in coaching – play to the strengths of your personnel.
"When you're scoring more goals, you're going to give up more goals, and that goes against my M.O., which is to play for an 8-6 game," Tierney said. "I'd be an idiot if I tried to keep these guys from scoring."
With Matthews (45 goals, 24 assists) as the focal point, the Pioneers have found ammunition all over the place, whether it's Carraro (19 goals) directing the transition game after winning draws or attackmen Alex Demopoulos (29g, 28a) and Todd Baxter (31g, 18a) slipping open off the ball, or Flint (37 points) and Noble (30 points) dodging into the heart of opposing defenses.
After losing early-season decisions to Syracuse and Notre Dame, the Pioneers took a major step with that Duke win. Against Hopkins, it all came together in a sparkling, 14-for-29 shooting performance, which featured just one goal from Matthews.
Beneath it all is a mentality that has carried Denver into historic territory, under an old coach learning new tricks.
"Our thinking was let's go beat a big boy, instead of just trying to play with the big boys," Tierney said. "After that Duke game, I thought this could be a very special season."