Denver's Challenge to Repeat: Tierney Talks "Fearing Success"
Twenty-three seasons ago, a young Princeton head coach named Bill Tierney was confronting a tremendous, unexpected rush of success.
The rebuilt Tigers had surprised the men's lacrosse world by winning the school's first NCAA Division I tournament championship. Tierney was searching for the right way to approach the 1993 season, which automatically carried huge expectations.
One topic he went out of his way to avoid was the 'R' word. No talk of repeating as champions. Any media questions to coaches and players that included winning back-to-back titles would be deflected.
"Back then, I said that I would never utter that word [repeat]," Tierney recalled.
Princeton handled the elephant in the room just fine. Even though the Tigers would stumble against Syracuse in the 1993 NCAA semifinals – only their second loss in 15 games – Princeton won it all the next season, then brought home four more NCAA championships over the next seven years, including repeat titles in 1997 and 1998.
As the seventh-year coach at Denver, which is defending its first Division I title in 2016, Tierney is in a different place and a different era.
The Pioneers, nearly two decades old as a D-I program, have become fixtures on Memorial Day weekend. Last year's charge to the top happened during Denver's fourth trip to the final four in five years. And the Pioneers sneaked up on no one, having begun the year ranked No. 1 in the country.
And, in the age of social media, during a time when lacrosse coverage makes the 1990s quaint by comparison, there is no room to hide from high expectations.
"We don't mind talking about repeating. I want our guys to embrace the idea and the fact that they are the only team facing this challenge," Tierney said.
"I want to get their minds off of 2015. I want them wrapping their mentality around beating their next opponent and nothing more," Tierney added. "Now, I talk to the kids about fearing success. They've achieved a certain level of it. I want them to fear not putting in the work that it will take to keep us up there."
As perennial title contenders since 2011, the Pioneers had earned a large share of respect before knocking off Maryland to win it all last May. Now that they are the top dogs until further notice, the Pioneers can be certain of one thing.
Denver, which has a younger core of talent in 2016, will deal with its opponent's most inspired effort on a regular basis. That's what typically happens when any team prepares to face the biggest of the big boys.
"We don't mind talking about repeating. I want our guys to embrace the idea and the fact that they are the only team facing this challenge," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "I want to get their minds off of 2015. I want them wrapping their mentality around beating their next opponent and nothing more." (John Strohsacker)
Air Force provided evidence of that in Saturday's season opener for both Colorado schools. After Denver scored six of the game's first seven goals in the first quarter, the Falcons responded with an 8-2 run. It included a Denver scoreless stretch of nearly 28 minutes and it left the Pioneers trailing, 9-8, after three quarters.
A pair of fourth-quarter goals by freshman attackman Nate Marano lifted Denver to a 10-9 victory. Freshman goalie Alex Ready launched his career with a 13-save gem, while sophomore faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste showed why he is considered the best in the land by winning 16 of 23 draws.
Denver won despite taking only 27 shots and committing 15 turnovers, nearly twice as many as Air Force.
That speaks to the pedigree that Denver lacrosse has established and sustained under Tierney. It also speaks to the unerring truth in sports, especially the amateur kind, that every year presents its own bag of challenges.
Last year's Pioneers were loaded with talent and experience and the savvy that comes with being a final four threat year after year. Denver also went through the 2015 campaign with minor scratches to its roster.
This year began without the departed senior class led by Wesley Berg and with juniors Connor Flynn and Jake Nolan on the shelf. Nolan, a close defenseman, is out for the season with an ACL injury. Flynn, a backup midfielder, is out indefinitely with a leg injury.
Tierney said five of his top 13 players (including the second midfield) are freshmen. They include starting defenseman Dylan Johnson and starting midfielder Austin French, along with Marano and Ready.
"With Air Force up 9-8 and five minutes to go in the game, reality set in," Tierney said. "I hope the lesson they taught us is we're going to get everybody's best shot. It sure won't get any easier."
Before dealing with the ever-improving Big East, Denver will wade into the usual danger spots in its nonconference schedule. On Saturday, third-ranked Duke will meet the Pioneers in Kennesaw, Ga. By mid-March, Denver will have tangled with North Carolina and Notre Dame.
It remains to be seen how injuries, luck and inexperience will affect Denver's bottom line this spring. It helps that the Pioneers have proven commodities, such as attackmen Connor Cannizzaro and Jack Bobzien, midfielders Zach Miller and Tyler Pace, defenseman Christian Burgdorf, and Baptiste.
And it really helps that the Pioneers have a sizeable core of players well-versed in the day-in, day-out habits that form a champion, even if Denver figures to be more vulnerable than last year's 17-2 squad.
"Last year, we didn't hide from our No. 1 [preseason] ranking. We felt like we were a final four team at the beginning," Tierney said. "This team has a lot more growth potential. I'd like to let [last year] go, but we're never going to forget that, and we shouldn't try to."
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