Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
A decade ago, Bill Tierney left a comfortable dynasty and headed west to establish a western lacrosse presence in Denver with two objectives; to create a western lacrosse mecca capable of regularly contending for a national title and to continue advancing the growth of the sport. Nine-consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, five Final Fours and one national championship later, Coach Tierney and the Pioneers have established themselves for the long run as the Lacrosse Capital of the West. While Tierney and Denver aim to again hoist the national championship title trophy this Spring, the 66-year old lacrosse maven continues his tandem goal of growing the sport.
“I think it goes back to my interview here,” coach Tierney said. “[Denver’s former athletic director] Peg Bradley Doppes gave me two goals here. Number one was about the program here, which is to put the program in the top echelon of the country and try to win a national championship or two. I think we’ve done that and we’ll try to continue to do that. The second piece of that was to help grow the game.”
Throughout Denver’s successes, coach Tierney has always been adamant that his program will play anyone, anywhere, anytime. And he’s kept his word.
Denver annually hosts the Faceoff Classic, a weekend in which the program invites Air Force and two others for Saturday and Sunday matchups. This year, Denver hosts 2017 Division l addition Cleveland State and the now-westernmost program and the newest NCAA addition, the Utah Utes.
“[The Faceoff Classic] gives us the opportunity to give [visiting teams] opportunities,” coach Tierney said. “But also to hopefully say to other schools, ‘Open your eyes a little bit here. This isn’t just about you and your program. This is all of us in a sport that has an up and down reputation, but it’s growing and it’s a great sport. It’s the fastest growing sport in our country. So, you need to sacrifice a little bit. You need to open these doors as well.’ What I’m especially alluding to — to my peers and my colleagues — is letting these new guys in a conference. I just don’t understand that. Otherwise, [our sport] is not going to grow.”
After two and a half years and much convincing, Utah made the quantum leap from club to Division l. The effort required numerous sacrifices from the coaching staff and their families and a tedious process of assembling a team capable of competing at the Dl level, all while maintaining a larger ambition in mind.
“Billy and I had talked about this before I came out here and that was our second motivator as well,” Utah head coach Brian Holman said. “To keep this thing going people had to take chances. My family and my staff, we all took a huge chance to come out here. But we all have a love for the game of lacrosse that’s unmatched. We felt an obligation to take this opportunity and this chance and to continue to push the game broader. It doesn’t necessarily have to be always west, but wherever it can take us.”
Prior to taking the helm at Utah, Holman spent eight years as an assistant coach at North Carolina. Holman and Tierney coached at Johns Hopkins together from 1986-1988.
“We go back,” Holman said. “He’s always been a confidant of mine. I have so much admiration and respect for Billy. We’re really grateful for the opportunity to take the field this weekend against two programs like Denver and Air Force.”
The Utes are composed of a 44-man roster including just three seniors and a whopping 34-man freshmen class. Utah returned 19 players from its club team and welcomed five transfers from four-year institutions. The program is 1-2 throughout its first three games of the season and notched its first win, 13-9, over Mercer on Feb. 9. There was an attendance of almost 4,000 at Utah’s debut game and already over 1,000 season tickets have been sold. The Utes’ 15-game season includes competitive contests against Furman, Duke and Cleveland State.
The opportunity to play Denver and Air Force consecutively is the type of rigor an inaugural program like Utah needs to experience early on. Utah has the aspirations to become an eventual and consistent tournament team. In the meantime, these matchups cultivate a healthy, competitive environment that benefits the entire sport.
“Denver has set the bar for the west,” Holman said. “That’s exactly what we’re talking to our guys about. We want to be in the higher echelon for lacrosse. We know it can be done because Denver has proved that. But we have to take the proper steps to get there. You can’t go from 0-100 in one day, right? What we’ve talked to our team about is let’s see how we measure up against two teams that already have had a foothold in the west.”
While the ultimate goal of spreading the sport is prominent, Utah and programs like three-year-old Cleveland State haven’t felt overly welcomed following their emergence. The programs haven’t received invitations to join conferences and instead, have to compete as independents. It’s a plight that Coach Holman, Coach Tierney and Coach Dylan Sheridan of Cleveland State have exhaustively discussed.
“It’s frustrating when you’re not even considered to be brought into any type of conference whatsoever,” coach Holman said. “But that frustration has passed and we have to find a way to make this work. That comes through hard work and effort. That’s what we’re going to do. We have a saying in our program; find a way. Our mentality is we’re going to keep knocking and pushing and trying. Something is going to break. We’re going to find a way to make this work at a grander scale.”
The circumstances may not be ideal, but the reality is that the Utah program is thrilled to have overcome the odds to join the Division l level. By no means was it an easy process, but the program has ambitious endeavors that even a minor obstacle like being invited into a conference cannot derail.
“We can’t use that as the ultimate motivator, but we can use that as spirit, right?” coach Holman said. “Hey, nobody wanted us. Nobody is willing to step in. So, we have to make our own way in this world. I think it’s a great lesson for the guys. Nobody is going to give you anything in this life. Nobody. So, what you have to do is you have to find a way to make it happen. We found a way to become a Division l lacrosse team. We found a way to get our first victory. We’re going to find a way to keep growing as a program. Sooner or later, somebody is going to take notice.”
The Faceoff Classic is more than just a weekend of lacrosse. It’s a conjunction of novel, prestige and expansion. After nearly 40 years of coaching collegiate lacrosse, this weekend is a tangible product of the visions for the sport Coach Tierney has witnessed and continues encouraging.
“It’s quite amazing,” coach Tierney said. “We have 73 [Division l] teams now. I can remember it being stuck in the high 50s for a long time. Then, we got to 60 and we thought it was a great milestone. To see them come in now and get it up to the 70s is amazing, but now we’re on hold again. You look at women’s lacrosse and they’ve blown by us [116 teams]. I’m all for that. I think that’s great. But we need to find ways to not be stifled by excuses. We need to continue to push our game and do everything we can. Everything the insiders can do to make people on the outside want to be a part of this game.”
- Denver enters the weekend ranked ninth after losing 10-9 in the final seconds to Duke. While it was the second-straight Denver loss to Duke following a fourth-quarter collapse, Coach Tierney was pleased with the grit and executions displayed by his team, “It’s another opportunity for this team to grow and fall back on. We didn’t give up. We were down 9-7 and we came back to tie it up the last two minutes. I give the kids a lot of credit. Two freshmen score goals for us to tie it up shows you that we’ve got some fortitude and we’ve got some ability to keep plugging. It shows you that maybe next time it will be us. There’s a lot to be positive about and a lot of encouragement [for the future].”
- Denver will continue to be without senior attackman Austin French who has missed the 2019 season to this point with an upper-body injury. “Believe me, when we get him back you’re going to see a different lacrosse team,” coach Tierney said. “He’s a special player.”
- Junior defenseman Colin Squires will be a game-time decision after sustaining a lower-body injury in the game against Duke.