DENVER (AP) — As his team was in the midst of a frenzied celebration on the field, Denver Pioneers lacrosse coach Bill Tierney casually stood back, arms folded, and soaked in the scene from the sideline.
Tierney has reveled in plenty of NCAA tournament wins over his Hall of Fame career.
This program hasn’t. These players, not once.
It was their moment, their time and Tierney just observed, beaming like a proud father.
Tierney was brought in from Princeton to boost the profile of Denver’s lacrosse program. He took a major step forward with his squad’s 13-10 win over Villanova on Sunday in the first NCAA tournament lacrosse game held west of the Mississippi River.
In front of an overflowing and rambunctious crowd, the Pioneers rallied from a three-goal deficit early in the second half for the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament win.
So new and green at this, the Pioneers (14-2) hardly knew how to celebrate the milestone accomplishment, settling for the more traditional pile-on approach.
“This is so huge for this program,” said freshman midfielder Jeremy Noble, who led the offensive attack with four goals and two assists. “We knew we could do this. But it’s time we showed the lacrosse world what we could do as a team. It’s just a stepping stone.”
The sixth-seeded Pioneers are rolling along this spring, winning 11 straight heading into a quarterfinal game Saturday against Johns Hopkins, a perennial power in the sport.
This from a school whose sports identity has been mainly carved through its success on the ice, especially since the university hasn’t fielded a football team in nearly five decades.
After Sunday’s game, Tierney was asked about the significance of this victory for the university.
Emotion creaking into his voice, Tierney felt that only later, maybe even years later, could he properly put this win in perspective.
“Right now, it’s just the first first-round win in the Denver program, the first time to the quarterfinals, the first (tournament) win west of the Mississippi,” Tierney said. “For our program and our kids, it continues to make them believe they can be one of the big boys. That’s been our mantra all year long: Not to play with the big boys but to be a big boy.”
Tierney’s teams have always been among the big boys. He led Princeton to 10 Final Four appearances and six NCAA championships.
Craving a new challenge after more than two decades with Princeton, Tierney headed West. In his first season with the Pioneers, the team went 12-5 and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament, where they fell to Stony Brook, their third straight NCAA tournament loss since joining the Division I lacrosse ranks in 1999.
This spring, the peaking Pioneers are one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation and boast a clutch goalie in freshman Jamie Faus, who had 13 saves against Villanova, including six in the fourth quarter.
Tierney’s methods and concepts have been fully absorbed by the Pioneers.
“Everyone looks up to him,” Noble said. “He always has words of wisdom, just knows what to do at the right times. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in just the way he acts and responds to certain situations.”
Tierney showed up on the Denver campus with bold ambitions two summers ago. Not only did he want to raise the interest in lacrosse at the school, but around the Mile High City and throughout the West.
He’s on his way.
It was quite a festive atmosphere hours before the game against Villanova as students and alumni tailgated outside the stadium.
Tickets for the 2,000-seat venue were sold out well in advance and many fans crammed along the outer fence despite the overcast and cool conditions, trying to catch a glimpse of the action.
Even in Tierney’s wildest imagination, he didn’t envision the program’s transformation happening this fast. He thought it would take more time, maybe a few more seasons.
But the Pioneers have quickly bonded.
Mark Matthews, one of the top scorers in the nation, had a big game Sunday, scoring three goals in the second half.
And with the tournament win, a heavy load has been lifted.
“It’s been a common thing all week: Can we do it? Will we do it?” said Matthews, a 6-foot-4 junior from Oshawa, Ontario. “It was definitely in the backs of ours heads — we needed to do this, we wanted to do this.”
Now, they face Johns Hopkins, winner of nine national titles.
“We’re playing one of the most storied programs in the world of lacrosse,” Tierney said. “It’s going to be a show for our guys.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)