During the 2011 college lacrosse season, the Denver Pioneers did something that no other team had done before them: host an NCAA Tournament regional round of games west of the Mississippi River. The tournament has been played since the 1971 season and has been thoroughly dominated by teams near the Atlantic Coast line.
The Pioneers then did much more than just host a regional. The team defeated Villanova, 13-10, at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium to advance to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Playing at Hofstra, the No. 6 Pioneers upset the No. 3 Johns Hopkins Blue Jays, 14-9, and secured a spot in the semifinals. Ultimately, the Pioneers lost to eventual national champion Virginia, 14-8, but it was a good run for a team making just its fourth tournament appearance.
A great deal of that improvement for the Pioneers came from hiring former Princeton Tigers head coach Bill Tierney in July 2009. This was a move to get serious about the program. Tierney had created an impressive resume while at Princeton. He won six national titles with the Tigers over a nine year span (1992, '94, '96, '97, '98 and 2001). The team made it to the championship game in 2000 and 2002, but fell to Syracuse each time. He was so great that he was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2002.
In his first season, Tierney guided the Pioneers to a 12-5 record, an ECAC championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That ECAC championship came in the team's first season in that league, as the conferences underwent realignment that season. No. 8 Stony Brook defeated the Pioneers in the opening round of the tournament. Yet, Tierney won the first of two straight Coach of the Year awards in the ECAC.
Of course, Tierney couldn't do it without his star players. Sophomores Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews combined for 74 goals and 109 points in 2010. The two were back at again as juniors in 2011, scoring 76 goals and 128 total points. Those two alone, however, could not help the Pioneers to a 13-2 record before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Todd Baxter was the captain and had 31 goals and 58 points. While he is gone to National League Lacrosse, junior midfielder Cameron Flint returns with 27 goals from his sophomore season. Sophomore midfielder Jeremy Noble netted 18 goals and assisted on 16 others. Chase Carraro won 58 percent of face-offs last season and will look to continue that strong play. And in net, Jamie Faus returns for his sophomore season after going 14-3 with a 8.55 goals against average as a freshman.
The offense certainly won't be lacking for the Pioneers, but there will be some changes on defense. It will be composed of freshmen and returners that include Kyle Hercher, John Zurlo and Harley Brown. Freshman Carson Cannon, 6-feet-4 and 200 pounds, could turn into an early contributor.
The Pioneers are No. 5 in in the preseason polls, and there's no reason to suspect the team to fall significantly from that position during the regular season. Denver is an emerging powerhouse in college lacrosse.
The Pioneers' emerging success is but one of many great things happening to lacrosse out west.
Sports Authority Field at Mile high will host the Mile High Classic on Friday, April 27, 2012, featuring the Denver Pioneers, the Virginia Cavaliers, the Penn Quakers and the Duke Blue Devils, all except Penn made the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in 2011.
This slate of games will be a great way to increase the attraction of the game in the west and to help show that Denver should be considered for a future NCAA Final Four venue.
The Denver Pioneers begin play on Feb. 19 against the Ohio State Buckeyes. The game will be televised on NBC Sports Network at 12:00 p.m. MT.