It's a small world for these coaches

National semifinals lacrosse coaches have formed strong bond

Originally Published: May 22, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The buzzword in the sport of lacrosse these days is "growth," as the once marginalized and regionalized game continues to stretch its reach across the country.

Indianapolis hosted an NCAA regional this year, and my own eyeballs spied a vibrant youth practice in, of all places, Louisville, Ky. Glance at the rosters for the teams gathering at this weekend's year-end lacrosse party -- the Final Four -- and you'll see, mixed in with your Long Islanders and Marylanders, players from Minnesota, California, Georgia and Missouri.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danowski
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportsDuke, led by coach John Danowski, is heading into its seventh consecutive lacrosse Final Four.

But at its heart, the game remains pretty localized, backed by a strong core of coaches or players-turned-coaches who have been at it for years. Four of them gather in Philadelphia on Saturday -- Denver's Bill Tierney, Syracuse's John Desko, Duke's John Danowski and Cornell's Ben DeLuca.

Fierce rivals on the field, they have known one another for years, the essence of the small world within the global game. "It's hard because you like everybody," Danowski said. "You know somebody has to go home at the end of the day, and you know how hard everybody works. It's almost better when you don't know anybody, when they're all faceless opponents."

Fat chance in this sport and especially in this Final Four, set to kick off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2 when Syracuse faces Denver, followed by Cornell-Duke. This quartet could beat Kevin Bacon in a game of six degrees of separation.

Twenty-one years ago, an outlier school won its first of what would become six national titles. Princeton beat Syracuse 10-9 in double overtime at Penn's Franklin Field, just a few miles away from this weekend's host venue, Lincoln Financial Field.

The head coach at Princeton? Bill Tierney. The top assistant at Syracuse? John Desko.

Now Tierney is back at another outlier, hoping to turn Denver into the westernmost team to win a national title. When he took the job with the Pioneers, Tierney realized that his team, on something of a Rocky Mountain lacrosse island, needed instant exposure.

He called Desko for an assist. "I said, these guys need to know what it's going to take to be a championship team, and I want their first experience to be against you at the Carrier Dome," Tierney said. "There's nothing more daunting than that. We used Syracuse as a measuring stick for what we had to be."

The Orange make for a pretty tall stick. They have won 11 national championships, the latest in 2009. In most sports, that's recent history. In Syracuse lacrosse, that's ancient history. Had they not beaten Yale, the Orange Class of 2013 would have been the first since 1979 not to make it to the Final Four.

Desko knows that pressure well. He is to Syracuse lacrosse what Jim Boeheim is to Syracuse basketball -- a lifer. He grew up in the town, played at the university and has never collected a paycheck from another employer. "The toughest one is always your first one," Desko said, referring to the Orange's title in 1983.

The first honors in this sport, though, go to Cornell. The Big Red captured the first trophy the NCAA handed out in 1971 and two more since then -- but none since 1977. They had a chance in 2009 but lost to Syracuse. (What, you were expecting someone outside of this foursome?) DeLuca was an assistant on that '09 team, taking over as the boss the following season.

Like Desko, DeLuca is true to his school, bleeding Big Red as a player, assistant, associate head coach and now head coach. Back in his heyday as a defenseman, DeLuca went head to head with Princeton every year coached by ... Tierney. "He was a great player," Tierney remembered.

This season, DeLuca has another great player -- maybe the best in the game this year -- in Rob Pannell. The Cornell senior needs six points to become the NCAA's all-time leader in scoring. But the team he and Cornell have to get past has strung together a string of excellence that is frankly unprecedented in any sport.

Seven years ago, Duke lacrosse was synonymous with scandal. This weekend, the Blue Devils will make their seventh consecutive appearance in the Final Four. That's a run that might even impress Mike Krzyzewski. The man who has led them there, Danowski, cut his coaching teeth at Hofstra.

When Danowski left the Long Island school for Duke, he was replaced by Seth Tierney, nephew of, yep, Bill. "I'm sure the Native Americans, the roots of our game, can speak to this better, but there's almost a spiritual nature to our sport," Danowski said.

Maybe because it's so connected, even closer than six degrees. Danowski grew up in East Meadow, N.Y., Tierney in Levittown, N.Y., Desko in Camillus, N.Y., and DeLuca in Rochester, N.Y. You could hit all four towns on a day trip and even jog the 2.5 miles between Danowski and Tierney's childhood homes. That's a pretty small world for such a global game.

Dana O'Neil | email

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