February 20, 2013

Young Gun, Old Hand to Meet Again in Denver

Cassese-Tierney history begins with recruiting process

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese and the Mountain Hawks staff visited Denver to learn from Bill Tierney and the Pioneers last January. The teams meet on the field Saturday in Denver.
© Kevin P. Tucker (Cassese); John Strohsacker (Tierney)

Nearly 15 years ago, a talented high school player from Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., named Kevin Cassese broke the heart of a living coaching legend named Bill Tierney, when Cassese changed his mind following a recruiting visit to Duke University.

Cassese, who before that trip to Durham was sure he would play for Tierney at Princeton, decided in the end he would rather be a Blue Devil.

Fast forward to about 15 months ago. Cassese, then entering the fifth season of his first head coaching gig at Lehigh, called Tierney, who was entering his third year as the master rebuilder at Denver. Cassese, who was running his own rebuilding project, wondered if he and his staff could come to Colorado and talk some serious shop for a couple of days by picking the brains of Tierney and his crew.

There was little chance Tierney would say no. First of all, collegiate lacrosse is much too fraternal for that, as opposing coaches routinely exchange ideas and philosophies at clinics, on the phone and on the road at mutual recruiting stops. Secondly, Tierney and Cassese are far from strangers.

Tierney, whose Pioneers had beaten Cassese's Lehigh squad in 2010 — and will play host to the Mountain Hawks on Saturday — is a huge fan of Cassese. Tierney's son, Trevor, also an assistant at Denver, played on two U.S. men's national teams (2002 and 2006) with Cassese.

"I've been in the game for a long time, and I've known Kevin for a long time. I adore the guy, even though he broke my heart way back when," said Tierney, whose 26-year Division I head coaching run includes six NCAA titles in 22 seasons at Princeton and Denver's first-ever final four in 2011. "A young guy like Kevin asks for advice, I have to give it. But I told him we want to learn as much from you.

"This game isn't about keeping secrets, because there are no secrets. It's a copycat game," added Tierney, who pretty much authored the defensive slide-and-recover game that has in part defined the sport for over two decades. "But the younger guys are under so much pressure now, and talking with them really helps shake the cobwebs loose for me. These young guys talk a different language."

So the old hand and the young gun and their respective staffs met in early January 2012 in a conference room at Denver, over two nights and a full day, tossing around schemes and sets and slides and positioning and situational nuance.

Various coaches held the floor. There was Trevor Tierney covering goalie play, Denver offensive coordinator Matt Brown holding court on Canadian-flavored offense, Lehigh defensive coordinator Brendan Callahan highlighting man-down strategy.

"Nothing too intricate, just talking basic lacrosse," Cassese said. "I was more interested in how [Tierney] teaches, what his message is, how he gets his kids to buy into it, how he does things that suit his personnel.

"Everybody looks at Coach T as the one who invented the sliding defense. We wanted to know stuff like how do you time it and structure it, how to do you position it with certain types of players? I was looking for a shift in how we played defense, and who better to ask about it than the guru of the 90s?"

"For a young guy like me, it was awesome [meeting with Tierney and his staff in that setting]," said Callahan. "Most coaches know the basics of how to stop certain [offensive] sets. But the biggest things for me was hearing the little details, the missing links, how they cover the crease when they slide, how and when they press out, how and when they sit back and shorten their recovery. It was great to just listen to [Tierney] talk about that."

Saturday's meeting between the old hand and the young gun represents an interesting, early-season crossroads moment for each program.

Denver, of course, has been in constant upswing mode under Tierney, who has led the Pioneers to three NCAA tournaments and nearly, back-to-back final four appearances. Lehigh has grown from irrelevance to a force under Cassese, who guided the Mountain Hawks to a school-record, 14 victories and their first-ever NCAA tournament in 2012.

Lehigh is ranked 12th, while Denver checks in at No. 11. Both coaches love to find Canadian talent to add zip to their offenses.

Lehigh, one of the better slide-and-recover teams last year, had the nation's second-ranked defense in 2012. Tierney has opened up the field and pushed the ball with striking results at Denver, which is annually one of the more explosive scoring teams. Instead of playing for the 8-6 wins that marked his tenure at Princeton, Tierney's Pioneers routinely reach a dozen goals.

Lehigh is coming off of its first win at Villanova since 1997, and is off to its first, 2-0 start in 13 seasons. Denver (1-1) is smarting after dropping a 15-12 decision to Penn State last week.

Rest assured, the young gun is wary of what the old hand has waiting for him.

"What's so remarkable about Coach T and his career is he's never out-dated. He's always on the cutting edge of the game, always adapting," said Cassese, who wishes Denver wasn't coming off of a loss on Sunday to Penn State. "I wish he would have scheduled someone else before trying to take our heads off."


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