Denver vs. Air Force: Mutual respect the name of the game in western-most rivalry

Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

After graduating from Loyola College as a four-year starter on defense, Bill Wilson, a Syracuse, N.Y. native, began his college lacrosse coaching career at Princeton University in 1995 under then head coach Bill Tierney.

15 years later, the former mentor and mentee would find themselves across the field in Colorado, both with their respective western-most programs. Wilson and the No. 17 Air Force Falcons will face Tierney and the No. 4 University of Denver Pioneers on Saturday, Feb. 10 at 1 p.m., since the program announced that Wilson would be the interim head coach. “I think the world of Coach Tierney,” Wilson said. “I think his track record as a coach speaks for itself. He’s arguably the greatest lacrosse coach ever in the game. I was very fortunate when I started to have my first position in Division l lacrosse be with coach Tierney. That was my first opportunity and I’ll always be grateful for that. He’s one of the reasons that I wanted to stay in college coaching.”

Since accepting the position as the head coach at DU in July of 2009, Tierney has established Denver as a western powerhouse capable of competing with the traditional east coast powers. Simultaneously, the Pioneers have cultivated a healthy, respected rivalry with their neighbors to the south along the Front Range.

DU (0-0, 0-0 BIG EAST), may have won the last ten games over Air Force, but the annual meeting encompasses such significance that the preparation and addresses from the coaching staff are different than those of other matchups.

“We always talk about respecting the mentality of the other team,” Tierney said. “What I mean by that is, what does this game mean to our opponent? Not only what it means for us; it’s our [season] opener, our seniors’ last opening game, it’s a team that’s the only Division l team in the state besides us, high respect for and friendships with their [Air Force] coaching staff, a lot of kids on their team played for our Denver Elite youth program. There is a lot of stuff that’s intermingled when you play a team like this. Because it’s the opener you’re playing more against yourself than them. But to respect their mentality, Air Force hasn’t beat Denver in a long time. They get up for this, it’s emotional.”

Air Force’s iconic entrance to take the field – photo courtesy of College Crosse

Tierney, a Levittown, N.Y. native, grew up in a structured military family household where his father served in World War ll. He administers a “team-first” attitude and is notorious for implementing stricter expectations than those of the university.

“Coach Brown and I, this is our ninth season together, I think our culture kind of feeds itself,” Tierney said. “Kids don’t come here if they don’t want to be disciplined. Kids don’t come here if they don’t want to sacrifice. Kids don’t come here if they want to be individuals. It’s now gotten to the point where guys are disciplined.”

Suiting up against players who already have bought into a bigger picture of sacrifice and responsibility is a refreshing reminder for Tierney and his staff that, at the end of the day there is more to life outside athletics.

“I think the most important thing that we do is at the end of it,” Tierney said. “At the end of their [DU players] four years here whether they are a starter or a bench warmer, it doesn’t matter to me, that they feel like it’s been worth it. They feel like a grown man. They feel like the things they learned here, forgetting the x’s and o’s or wins and losses, are valuable to their future. Whether they’re going to be future husbands, fathers, CEOs, just employees, doctors, lawyers, whatever. I think just going through this [playing for Denver] because of the discipline side, because of the team-first mentality we have, fosters them into believing that it has helped them prepare for the rest of their lives.”

Coach Tierney addressing his players in a mid-game huddle – photo courtesy of Denver Athletics

Being a collegiate athlete at the Division l level imposes trials and tribulations that test the capability and resilience of the individual as does balancing athletics with academics and a social life. Appending a pillar of military regimens requires a unique individual to not just survive, but to thrive.

“First and foremost the Air Force cadet-athletes; they’re very special,” Wilson said. “They balance so many things. After having to balance things for such a long time, they become really efficient at it. I’m very proud of my guys. It’s amazing what they accomplish on the field, off the field, in the classroom, and in their squadrons.

“While athletics are very important to our guys, I’d say they aren’t the number one priority.”

In recent years, the Falcons have created a name for the program on the national spectrum. The team repeated Southern Conference titles in 2016 and 2017 and earned berths to the NCAA tournament both years. While the accomplishments are impressive, the Falcons aspire to perpetuate their success. Their in-state foes are an exemplar and motivation to continue the ascent.

Air Force claims second-consecutive Southern Conference championship with a 9-6 win over the University of Richmond – photo courtesy of the Southern Conference

“I know that our players look forward to that game. It’s a top-five game,” Wilson said. “To have that caliber of a team in the area, I know that there is a history with our programs and our guys in the past love to compete against them. In recent years, they are the measuring stick that we need to be able to compete against. We need to beat a Denver in order for us to get to that next level as a program. Beating Duke the last two seasons was a great accomplishment for our program. We need to continue to develop and get to that level where we can beat the Denver Pioneers and be in the top-five. We’ve gotten to the top-ten in the last two seasons, we just need to get over that hump.”

Wilson was named the interim head coach after an investigation that took place in mid-October involving hazing and bullying ended. Coach Eric Seremet and members of the junior and senior class have yet to be reinstated.

“I know what our guys are made of,” Wilson said. “I know this is going to make us stronger as a team. Through this week of practice, we’re already better than we were this last week. Last week was a tough one, but we’re going to get better every week. I know that we have huge room for improvement. Knowing who we are and how hard our guys work, we are going to be much better at the end of the season. I do believe that. It’s a great opportunity for some of our younger players to step up into roles that they haven’t taken on before.”

The Falcons (0-1, 0-0, Southern) look to bounce back after dropping an 18-4 result in their season opener against Duke University. While not at full capacity, the team is utilizing this adversity as an opportunity to earn success from the depths of their 58-man roster.

“We know we don’t have a target on our back,” Senior attackman Nick Hruby said. “No one is expecting much from us. We’re just going to go out there and play as hard as we can to prove them wrong.”

The rivalry, while initiated by proximity, has developed into a battle of talent and will with utmost respect exchanged between teams.  

“The fact that they’ve got kids that play hard and understand how to play,” Tierney said. “It’s not just five players with a bunch of tough guys running around on the team, it’s 30 or 40 really good lacrosse players. That’s all changed. From that point of view, maybe any week but this week, I’m so proud of them and I’m happy for them when they win. They do it right. They recruit hard. I’m really proud of them, I just don’t want them to beat us.”