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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Patience is a virtue. So is perseverance. Luckily for head coach Bill Tierney, his Denver Pioneers have both in spades.
In a must-win matchup against ECAC foe Fairfield at Rentschler Field in the first game of the ESPNU Warrior Classic, the No. 17 Pioneers rallied after trailing for all but four minutes of the game to escape with a 9-8 win.
The win sets up a de facto ECAC championship game between Loyola and Denver at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium on May 2. The ECAC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, as well as the right to host the inaugural ECAC tournament in 2011, will be on the line.
Saturday's come-from-behind win against a Top 20 team should give Denver (10-4, 5-0) confidence heading into the showdown with the league-leading Greyhounds. It's the third such win for Denver, which started off the season with losses to Syracuse and Jacksonville before winning nine of the past 11. The Pioneers are riding a seven-game win streak; their last loss came at the hands of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind."Fairfield took it to us. I thought we'd need to get to 10 or 11 to win this one," said Tierney, whose team trailed 3-0 in the first quarter before junior middie Andrew Lay put the Pioneers on the board. "Our players have a lot of resolve, a lot of no-quit in them."
After taking a 5-3 deficit into halftime, Denver came out fired up in the third quarter. The first-half sloppiness -- bad clears, turnovers -- was a distant memory. Sophomore attackmen Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews tied the game in the first four minutes of the quarter, before Fairfield's Max Trunz and Brent Adams scored back-to-back goals to give the Stags the lead once again.
"We were hoping to get off to a better start, but we always have the confidence to step up when we get behind," said Demopoulos after the game. The crowd's support didn't hurt -- while Denver traveled the farthest for the Warrior Classic, the Pioneers boast a few New England natives (including Demopoulos, who's from Canton, Conn.) who helped fill the stands with Pioneer fans.
The slow pace that marked the first half -- and nearly lulled the crowd at Rentschler to sleep -- was abandoned in the fourth quarter as both teams fought for their conference lives. After trading shots on goal -- Denver's Peter Lowell recorded nine saves on the day, Fairfield's Joseph Marra finished with six -- freshman attackman Colin Scott caught a cross-goal pass from Charley Dickenson to tie the game at 7. It was short-lived, however, as Fairfield's Ryan Mulford put the Stags ahead with less than 7 minutes remaining.
"After halftime, we got back together and knew what we had to do," Scott said. "In the first half, Fairfield was slowing the ball, and as long as they hold it, we can't get it. We felt like we had to push it as much as we could."
The young Pioneers didn't panic. They continued to win the faceoff battle (13-of-21 on the game). Matthews followed up a miss with a clean shot to tie the game with 4:35 remaining. He scored the game-winner a minute later, taking his man one-on-one and getting a bounce shot by Marra.
"We have been in this position before. We've come from behind to win three times this season," Matthews said. "From the start of the season, we've been playing with pressure -- playing for a new coach, playing for your spot. That experience is helping us now."
Denver is hoping that its ability to play loose in tight spots and its confidence that it can beat ranked opponents will pay off on May 2, when the Pioneers try to win the first-ever ECAC championship.
Lauren Reynolds covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.