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Last year, the University of Denver men’s lacrosse team became the first school West of the Appalachians to capture an NCAA Division I championship in the sport—a feat that underscored the program’s recent ascent into the college lacrosse elite.
This spring, the defending NCAA champions continue to impress, as the Pioneers are 13–2 and set to host Towson on Sunday at Peter Barton Stadium in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament. (Air Force is also representing Colorado in the tournament, as the Falcons won the Southern Conference in their first year in the league and take on No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday.)
Even though DU was upset by Marquette in the Big East championship last week—a defeat that snapped the Pioneers’ NCAA-best 22-game home winning streak—the team is still in good position to make a run through the tournament to a second consecutive title. But beyond that, the Pioneers lacrosse squad—much like the DU hockey team, which made a Frozen Four run this winter—has an opportunity to prove that there’s been a discernable power shift in the sport, from the East to the West.
DU’s continued progression can be attributed to the influx of talent on its roster—this season, Connor Cannizzaro (44 goals), Zach Miller (21 goals), and homegrown player Jack Bobzien (22 goals, 2012 Arapahoe High School graduate) have paced the Pioneers offensively. But it’s the coaching of Bill Tierney, who claims an NCAA-record seven national titles and took over at DU in 2009 following nearly three decades as head coach at Princeton, that’s helped shape the team’s success. The Levittown, New York, native has amassed an eye-popping 97–26 overall record (a .788 winning percentage) in six-plus seasons with the Pioneers and is 41–17 all-time in NCAA tournament play.
Tierney’s prowess has proved to be the turning point between DU being a solid lacrosse program and an unexpected championship program. He’s built a squad with immense talent, both from the national and local levels (DU boasts a dozen Colorado players on its roster this year). Plus, he’s the only coach to win a national title at two schools. He is, by all definitions, a lacrosse legend, and it’d be naive to underestimate the significance he brings to the program in terms of both coaching and recruiting.
But what will it take for the Pioneers to repeat a title win in a tournament that’s stacked with the likes of No. 1 Maryland and No. 3 Notre Dame? The answer lies in the team’s business-like attitude. The No. 2 seed is the highest position the Pioneers have ever earned in the tournament (they were the No. 4 seed last season), but after an upsetting loss to Marquette, expect the Pioneers to enter the tournament with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Should the Pioneers win the title, it wouldn’t just be for the university or the state of Colorado—Tierney & Co. would be making another strong statement about the state of lacrosse in the Western U.S.