From player to coach to teacher, John Orsen has come full circle

Photo courtesy DU Athletics

Denver men’s lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney watched John Orsen develop as a college athlete, professional, and coach, all the while keeping a close eye. When the opportunity presented itself, Coach Tierney got Orsen on the phone and offered him a position as the University of Denver Pioneers’ defensive coordinator in September 2014.

“I knew about him as a player and a young man because he played for my nephew at Hofstra [and] Coach Amplo. We knew all the good things,” Tierney said. “He played for both pro leagues, everything anything ever said about him was high quality. Secondly, he coached against us at Marquette. Even though they were a new program, you could see the effect he was having on their defense and their program.”

Orsen, a Long Island, NY native, played collegiately at Hofstra University for Coach Tierney’s nephew, Seth Tierney. He was recruited as an attackman, but transitioned to offensive midfielder, midfielder, and long-stick midfielder as a result of sustaining injuries and what was needed at the time throughout his career.

“Playing all of the positions, getting in certain situations certainly helps your athletic ability and your knowledge of the game,” Orsen said. “You are put in certain situations that maybe other guys aren’t put in all over the field so I think that helps. At the professional level I think that helped me because I was able to play long stick middie or short stick middie at the same time, different positions, it just opened my eyes to different situations that I can help teach now.”

Orsen played professionally for Major League Lacrosse’s Long Island Lizards and later won a championship with the Chesapeake Bayhawks in 2012. Orsen also played box lacrosse in the National Lacrosse League with the New York Titans.

“I was working in finance in New York City and was able to play professionally on the weekends which I loved and was close to the family. But I got hurt a couple of times and just wasn’t loving finance,” Orsen said. “Then my old coach at Hofstra [Joe Amplo] got the Marquette job and he called me up and wanted to know if I was interested in coaching and that’s how I got involved in coaching; was starting out at Marquette with Joe Amplo and that staff, starting that program.”

With a fresh start in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Orsen instantly thrived in his new role, helping Marquette’s inaugural program go 5-8 and earn a No. 18 national rank in ground balls.

When a position on Denver’s staff opened, Coach Tierney and Matt Brown knew who they wanted to fill the position.

“So when Trevor [Tierney] left and then Dylan Sheridan took over as the defensive coordinator we wanted some continuity there, but I also wanted some new ideas there just like we had with Matt [Brown] a few years earlier,” Tierney said. “That’s what I’ve learned as a head coach; you can’t stay stagnant. So John came in and after talking with him and getting through our first fall I just turned our defense over to him. Even though it was different than my defense, the ‘Bill Tierney’ or ‘Princeton’, it incorporated a lot of the same concepts, but I was confident that John could get it done and he has.”

Ironically, during his recruiting process, Denver was one of the schools that pushed for Orsen. Come full circle now, Orsen found his way out west anyway.

“I had no idea what Denver was like. Growing up on Long Island there are certain schools that your eyes are on and in the recruiting process Denver was never even remotely close to what I was thinking about,” Orsen said. “I thought it was like playing in three-feet of snow everyday. Now living here I couldn’t believe I disregarded it. I’m obviously happy I’m here. The weather is great, the city is great. It’s a really cool place to live.”

Since stepping into his position, Orsen has transformed Denver’s defense tremendously. In combination with Coach Brown’s offense, Orsen has created a more push-style transitional defense seeing more long-poles on the attack as well as a more aggressive defensive style which he coined, “controlled aggressiveness.” The modifications have been effective for the Pioneers with the better evaluations of offenses’ ball handling.

Overall for Orsen, this experience of coaching isn’t just about drawing up the plays, it’s about the individual development of his players and creating meaningful relationships.

“The biggest surprise is the off-the-field stuff. The x’s and o’s is easy,” Orsen said. “It’s constantly motivating and challenging these guys. Trying to get the most out of them. They’re still young, they’re still developing as young men and I think it’s a challenging world now with social media, there is a lot of pressure on them. I think each player is different. Each player has a different family background, a different academic background, a different social background and you’ve got to manage those and develop those. That’s the biggest challenge. The x’s and o’s is easy to any coach in the NCAA. It’s how you manage. That’s what I’ve learned the most from Coach Tierney, how you manage and develop these young guys.”

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