|(above) Bill Tierney reflects on an epic season for DU Lacrosse|
by Bill Alden
Bill Tierney is back east this month at some of his old stomping grounds, working at the elite “Top 205” lacrosse camps in the Baltimore area.
On Memorial Day weekend, the former Princeton University men’s lacrosse head coach and current University of Denver boss, returned to another stomping ground as he guided the Pioneers to the NCAA Final 4.
While Hall of Fame coach Tierney was an old hand at the national semifinals, having guided Princeton to 10 Final 4 and six national titles, Denver was a surprise guest at the lax party.
Denver had never won an NCAA tournament game until topping Villanova and Johns Hopkins this spring on the way to the Final 4 and no program west of Notre Dame had ever made the semis.
For Tierney, Denver’s run conjured up memories of his first trip to the Final 4 in 1992 when the Tigers toppled North Carolina and Syracuse on the way to the program’s first national title.
“It did remind me of my first time around,” said Tierney, whose sixth-seeded squad fell 14-8 to eventual national champion Virginia in the semis to end the season at 15-3. “It was the first time for the program. It was all new and they were the underdogs.”
While much of the lax world may have been surprised to see the upstart Pioneers in the Final 4, Tierney had believed for some time that his squad had the potential to challenge for a national title.
“We were thinking about the Final 4 since September,” said Tierney, who was in his second year at Denver and had led the Pioneers to a 12-5 record in his debut season in 2010.
“We knew we were good but the kids didn’t believe it. We set high goals and if we didn’t meet them, that would be OK.”
The dreams of the Final 4 seemed to be fantasy when Denver opened its 2011 season by falling to Syracuse 13-7 in late February.
“Going into the spring, we were thinking we could be pretty good and then we got punched in the nose by Syracuse,” said Tierney. “It is a tough place to play.”
The Pioneers bounced back by winning three straight games and then showed how tough they could be as they narrowly lost 10-9 to No. 3 Notre Dame in mid-March and later upended No. 4 Duke 12-9 on April 9.
“The Notre Dame loss was a turning point; we did everything right except outscore them,” asserted Tierney.
“The Notre Dame game showed us we we could play with the big teams and the Duke game showed we could beat them.”
The win over Duke helped Denver earn a home game in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the first time a game in the tourney had taken place west of the Mississippi River.
The Pioneers made their home fans happy, overcoming Villanova 13-10 in a topsy-turvy contest.
“Getting a home game was something we wanted but it put a lot of pressure on the guys,” said Tierney. “It turned out to be a great day, it was a great crowd and a tough game.”
A week later, Denver produced what turned out to be the greatest day of its season as it stunned traditional powerhouse Johns Hopkins 14-9 in the NCAA quarters to punch its ticket to Baltimore and the Final 4.
“We were playing with house money; the guys were loose and we had nothing to lose,” recalled Tierney. “That was the best we played. The offense came together and the defense held things together when they made their storm.”
The Pioneers, though, got caught in a storm in the early going against Virginia in the national semis, falling behind 9-2 by halftime.
“The day before the Final 4 was the first time they showed a nervousness about them,” said Tierney, noting that making semis spawned a storm of media coverage in Denver and sparked former players and coaching colleagues to reach out to him with congratulations.
“Playing a team like Virginia before a crowd of 45,000 was unlike anything they had seen. They did a good job in the second half. I give the kids a lot of credit. I felt bad that we lost but a week later you realize what a good season it was. They learned some things they had to learn. They learned what it takes and that it is hard to get there.”
Tierney, for his part, believes the Pioneers can make some more trips to his NCAA stomping grounds.
“We were hoping to get to the Final 4 in five years and we made it in two,” said Tierney.
“I think we can get back. It is really exciting. DU is a wonderful place to work; it is like a family. Our success brought the campus together; people were really into it.”