After the dust had settled and the tears had dried, in the months after the University of Denver men’s lacrosse season ended so discouragingly, coach Bill Tierney could only shake his head, recalling how the bitter end unfolded.
“There hadn’t been any penalties the whole game,” Tierney says. “Then, to get two right at the end …”
Like Tierney, Pioneers fans may ruminate over the loss against Syracuse last May in the NCAA Semifinals for years to come. DU held a two-goal lead and was not even three minutes away from earning the program’s first berth in the NCAA Championship game when simultaneous penalties on Carson Cannon and Eric Law opened the door for a Syracuse comeback that ended with the Orangemen scoring the winning goal with 20 seconds remaining. “It was a tough way to end,” Tierney says, “but a few tough minutes at the very end does not at all take away from what these young men accomplished. I couldn’t be more proud of the season they put together.”
Now the trick for Tierney’s Pioneers will be to maintain the lofty status the program has attained nationally. The conference shuffle that has altered the face of DU’s entire athletics department did not bypass the men’s lacrosse program, with the Pioneers set to join the Big East Conference this season. And while DU was forced to say farewell to such decorated seniors as Chase Carraro, Eric Law and Cameron Flint, the Pioneers still boast one of the top goalie tandems in the nation in Ryan LaPlante and Jamie Faus, and Tierney is eager to welcome what is expected to be a dynamic recruiting class.
“We definitely have some quality student-athletes coming in,” Tierney says, “and by joining the Big East, I think we’ll only enrich our profile nationally.”
But don’t just take his word for it. Inside Lacrosse magazine ranked DU’s incoming class No. 11 — the highest rank since Tierney joined the Pioneers in 2009. First-year students Zach Miller, Dallas Bridle and Max Planning were among the top 100 freshmen the publication ranked. Tierney is particularly complimentary of Miller: “He has an amazing story; he’s a left-handed Native American from a reservation near Buffalo [New York], and I think he’ll go down as one of the best players ever to play here.”
In women’s lacrosse, head coach Liza Kelly says despite a youthful team (nine freshmen), she’s looking to build on last year’s success. That’ll be a feat. The 2012–13 squad amassed an 18–3 record and earned its first berth into the NCAA tournament, where it won its first round game against Jacksonville. The team also went undefeated at home and boasted a perfect 8–0 record in conference play, winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season title.
“It was our best year, but this is probably the most talented group of freshmen I’ve seen, and I expect they’ll make a big impact for us,” Kelly says. “They’re young, but they’re hardworking. I like their enthusiasm; I don’t see them getting complacent.”
The team keeps five playmaking upperclassmen: Jenn Etzel, Annabelle Gilbride, Meredith Harris, Hannah Hook and Jill Remenapp.
All will need to step up as the team faces several top schools in its conference, including the University of Oregon, the University of Southern California and Stanford.
“Stanford, in particular, has been a monkey on our back, and the conference is getting more intense,” Kelly says.
However, DU may have the upper hand come season’s end: the Pioneers will host the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships in May, an honor given to the last regular season conference champ. “I think it’ll be an advantage; not many teams want to come here to play at altitude,” Kelly says. “Plus it’s an intimate environment, so it should be exciting.”