Denver is the new power in lacrosse

In its third final four in three years, the new kids are taking over the block

Originally Published: May 23, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Almost exactly a year ago, minutes after his team was eliminated from its second final four appearance in school history-- a heartbreaking 9-8 national semifinal loss to powerhouse Syracuse -- Denver coach Bill Tierney offered a suitably emotional and, of course, perfectly accurate prediction.

"We're disappointed, but this is a Denver team that went further than any other Denver team, and nobody expected us to be what we were this year," Tierney said. "They probably won't expect us to be what we'll be next year. But we'll be back."

Surprise, surprise. Denver is back, and it is characteristic of this final four in a number of ways.

On Saturday, the Pioneers will make their third final four appearance in four seasons, this one the product of a 16-2 season and a comprehensive run through arguably the toughest competition (North Carolina, then Drexel) of any seeded team in the tournament.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Noble
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesThis is Jeremy Noble's third final four in his four-year Denver career.

Things go up a notch this weekend, because semifinal opponent Duke is essentially the lacrosse version of the "Hawks" from the first Mighty Ducks movie, minus the awesome leather jackets. (Or, if you prefer, "a machine sent from the future to teach us a lesson about lacrosse that is unclear at the moment," as one College Crosse writer recently described Duke.) The Blue Devils' appearance at M&T Stadium in Baltimore in the first and most anticipated of Saturday's semifinals will be their eighth straight trip to lacrosse's last weekend.

The 2014 final four is predictable that way. Duke is here, because of course. There are also two other seeded ACC teams -- Notre Dame and Maryland -- squaring off in Saturday's finale, which gives the perennially dominant ACC an acceptable 75 percent share of the final four.

And Tierney is here, too. The Hall of Fame coach is making his 13th championship weekend trip in 25 years of coaching in Division I. There is certainly nothing "unpredictable" about his presence. When he said his team would be back, he was speaking from experience.

What is slightly unusual -- and a sign of the growth of lacrosse as a sport at large -- is the school Tierney is taking.

From 1992 to 2001, Tierney won six national titles at Princeton. Denver wasn't a full Division I lacrosse member until 1999. Tierney was already fully enshrined as a legend when he shocked the lacrosse world in 2009 and left his long-established blue blood for a hungry up-and-comer.

If there is an "old lacrosse," the provincial niche sport dominated by Eastern teams such as Syracuse, Virginia and Johns Hopkins, the new lacrosse is sprouting up in unexpected places.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which tracks high school sports participation rates, 140 percent more boys and 130 percent more girls played lacrosse in 2012 than in 2006. In 2015, the Big Ten will sponsor a lacrosse championship for the first time in its history.

The game isn't about to challenge any of the major sports anytime soon -- Title IX makes sponsorship a difficult proposition for many schools -- but it is burgeoning outside of its traditional enclaves.

Denver may be the best example. The area is an unlikely hotbed for the game, but in 2013 Inside Lacrosse named it the best lacrosse town in the country. Youth programs abound and dozens of high schools in the state sponsor the sport. In 2012-13, more than 3,800 boys and 1,600 girls participated, according to NFHS.

Before Tierney arrived, Denver had already invested in a lacrosse-only stadium. The Pioneers' 2014 roster comprises players from Colorado and 19 other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Arizona, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

In many ways, the Pioneers' success -- led by a man once synonymous with stifling, defensive Ivy League teams -- is the best bridge yet between the old lacrosse and the new. Now Denver is back again, and nothing would cement the symbolism quite so well as the school's first national title.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Raffa
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsMaryland faceoff specialist Charlie Raffa has been dealing with an ailing knee this postseason.

"We've been to championship weekend twice in the past three years and now the third time, we're hoping that this one is one that we're not in awe of," Tierney said.

Other storylines from the 2014 final four

Denver-Duke should be a doozy. The Blue Devils are, for lack of a more original phrase, an unstoppable scoring machine. The defending national champions played one of the toughest schedules in the country (one that included an early-season matchup with Denver) and emerged with some of the gaudiest statistics and win margins you'll ever see. (See, for instance, Duke's two NCAA tournament routs: A 20-9 first-round win over Air Force and a 19-11 spanking of legacy power Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals.) Meanwhile, Denver, led by brilliant senior midfielder Jeremy Noble, scored on almost 37 percent of its shots (and put the ball on net on 63 percent of its attempts).

Tierney's old-school Princeton style has long since given way to thrilling offense at Denver. This means two things: 1) Denver can't beat Duke with defense, therefore 2) this game is going to be a lot of fun.

"You don't look at their people and say, 'Well, if we can hold them to eight we'll win,'" Tierney said on Duke. "That's not happening. So you're either going to lose or you're going to try to outscore them, and I think that's what's going to make for a fun game on Saturday."

Duke defenseman Casey Carroll is 29 years old, married with two children, holds an advanced degree from Duke's business school and has the most remarkable eligibility tale you've ever heard. In 2007, after the infamous scandal in which three Duke players were falsely accused of rape, Carroll enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served 4 1/2 years in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning to Duke to reclaim his final year of eligibility ... when, in 2013, he promptly blew out his knee. Charlie Rose introduced his story on a recent episode of "CBS This Morning." This is Carroll's last chance to participate in a Blue Devils national title run.

Notre Dame might be the hottest -- or maybe just the luckiest -- team in the country. A loss to national semifinal opponent Maryland on April 25 would have made Notre Dame 6-6 overall and desperately in need of a win in the final game of the season against Army to avoid missing the NCAA tournament altogether. Instead, Notre Dame got that win, went on to win the ACC tournament's automatic bid and hasn't lost since. Four of those games down the stretch were decided by just one goal.

Maryland has home-field advantage, and lots and lots of possessions. Whatever advantage that playing in Baltimore provides to Maryland this weekend, it is likely to be less important than the Terps' grindingly efficient style of play. Maryland manages possessions better than any team in the country. The Terps have one of the best faceoff men in the game in Charlie Raffa (though Raffa's lingering knee injury could be a concern Saturday) and a style of play that ensures that when they win possession, they maintain it. Their matchup with Notre Dame may not have the same potential for the sublime, but it is impossible to predict anything but a nail-biter in Saturday's finale.

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