Athletics & Recreation

Coaches Bill Tierney and Liza Kelly are turning the Pioneers lacrosse program into one of the best in the country

The Pioneers teams have become the nucleus of a booming Colorado lacrosse scene. Photo: Todd Christensen

The Pioneers teams have become the nucleus of a booming Colorado lacrosse scene. Photo: Todd Christensen

“It’s too quiet out here! Let’s go!”

University of Denver men’s lacrosse coach Bill Tierney stands in the middle of the field at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium on campus. It’s a beautiful late summer afternoon, the first day of practice for the 2015 season, and Tierney’s 47 players are quietly running drills — too quietly for Tierney’s liking. He wants the Denver Pioneers to get loud.

In truth, Tierney himself, dressed in wind pants and T-shirt, is uncharacteristically subdued. There are none of the outbursts the 63-year-old has become famous for on the sidelines, none of the ferocity that’s been known to wilt incoming first-year players.

Maybe that’s because five years into Tierney’s tenure at DU, the Pioneers are firing on all cylinders. At the end of last season — in which the team made the Final Four of the Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship for the third time in four years — the NCAA ranked DU’s men’s lacrosse team fifth in the nation. And word is that this season, they could be even better.

The men’s lacrosse home opener is at 1:30 p.m. Saturday; visit the team’s homepage for more information.

“I think we have the best chance we have had in four years to make it to the finals and win it,” says senior attackman Wesley Berg. “We have lots of depth in our offense, where anyone can play attack and midfield, and our defense keeps getting stronger. I think we keep improving every year, and the guys are getting ever more confident in the system.”


Rocky Mountain way

The Pioneers teams have become the nucleus of a booming Colorado lacrosse scene. In 2013, Inside Lacrosse named Denver the best lacrosse town in the country, and in summer 2014, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City hosted the World Lacrosse Championships. And these days, says Tierney, Denver’s location is no longer a disadvantage — he and women’s coach Liza Kelly are perfectly positioned to recruit players from growing lacrosse cultures in California, Canada and, of course, Colorado.

“When I came here, I felt like we had a recruiting disadvantage because we were 2,000 miles from the lacrosse hotbed on the East Coast,” Tierney says. “Honestly, I don’t care anymore. When you look at a sport like ours, you realize what’s going on in lacrosse is historical. It’s the fastest growing sport in the country, and like a tidal wave, it’s moving west and going and going and going.”

The transformation began in 2006, when Liza Kelly was hired as head coach of the Pioneers women’s lacrosse team. Just 30 at the time, she arrived with an impressive resume: All-American midfielder at the University of Delaware, U.S national team member, Baltimore Chapter of U.S Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee, assistant women’s lacrosse coach at Towson University, and finally head coach at Boston University, where she led the women’s team to consecutive playoff championships and earned two America East Coach of the Year awards.

“I hate to lose,” explains Kelly, who last season led the women’s team to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row and came away with a 19-2 record that stands as the most wins in the team’s history. “I am beyond competitive.”

She brought that competitive spirit to DU — as well as a new focus on discipline. “I think a lot of kids came out to Denver and thought it would be a good time and they could play lacrosse on the side,” she says. Kelly changed that by reining in behavior on and off the field. The shift wasn’t always easy, but it paid off: When the first-year students on her first DU team became seniors, they reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the first time.

The other secret to the squad’s success? Grit. Kelly recently heard from the University’s strength and conditioning coach that she had the hardest-working team at DU — just what she likes to hear.

“We are a team that will outwork you every time,” she says. That’s why she has high hopes for the coming season, especially since the players will have at their backs senior Hannah Hook, whom Kelly calls “one of the top goalies in the nation.”

Despite the team’s drive and competitiveness, Kelly says the mission isn’t just about winning — it’s also about having fun. As she puts it, “We want to be able to look back as coaches and ask the players, ‘Would you do it all over again?’ and hopefully have them all say, ‘Yes.’”


The Tierney advantage

The next chapter in DU’s lacrosse evolution came in 2009, when Tierney made a shocking departure from the Princeton Tigers to lead the men’s squad in Denver.

“We had five gentlemen [being considered for the coaching job], and they were all great, but before giving one of them a formal offer, I felt like we would be perhaps settling if I did not reach out to Coach Tierney to see if he wanted to grow the sport at a national level here at the University of Denver,” says Peg Bradley-Doppes, DU’s vice chancellor for athletics, recreation and Ritchie Center operations. “It epitomized our competitive spirit. There is no reason not to shoot for the top, for the best.”

Tierney really was the best. He was a hall-of-fame coach, one of the most celebrated in the game, the guy who’d won an astounding six national titles and 14 Ivy League championships during his 22 years at Princeton. Why would he take a pay cut and move to lacrosse’s version of the boonies, the only Division I school, aside from the Air Force Academy, west of the Mississippi?

“I could have walked off into the sunset at Princeton and been very happy,” Tierney concedes. “But this thing inside me said, ‘Let’s try to do this again.’”

So as soon as he arrived at DU in 2009, Tierney and his coaching staff got to work rebuilding a program that had been struggling with discipline problems and that had seen 10 of its top players, including star Dillon Roy, quit in the offseason.

The secret, Tierney says, was a tough-love brand of coaching, on and off the field. “The way I describe him to everybody is he is the complete commander-in-chief,” says Tierney’s associate head coach, Matt Brown. “He is exceptional in managing all aspects of the program. On the practice field, he is the general. When you go to meet with him in his office for a personal matter, he is completely compassionate. He, better than anyone, knows the balance between being there for your guys and being the rock, holding them accountable and giving them discipline.”

When he started his new job, Tierney called Roy and the other players who’d left the team and asked them to give him a chance to make their remaining time at college something special. At the same time, once that season started, the coaching staff laid down the law: No more funny stuff off the field, no more long hair, no more informal attire at team breakfasts or when they were on the road. Yes, players work so hard at practice all week that the games on Saturday can seem like a break. But all the coaches follow Tierney’s rule: “I always say, if you kick a kid in the butt, you have 24 hours to give him a hug, literally or figuratively.”

The plan worked. At the end of Tierney’s first season at DU, the team boasted a 12-and-5 record and had scored a spot in the NCAA tournament. They’ve made the tournament every year since.

The team’s training regimen, which begins five months before the official season, isn’t easy, says Eric Law (BSBA ’13), a former attackman for the Pioneers who now plays for the Denver Outlaws Major League Lacrosse team. But no matter how hard the players worked on the field, Law says, they were encouraged to work even harder in the classroom.

“School always came first,” he says. “It was not just about lacrosse; you had to take advantage of all the opportunities available at the University.”

All in all, says Law, playing for the Pioneers was one of the hardest things he’s ever done — but he’d gladly do it all over again. “In college, we spent every single day together as teammates,” he says. “Now, with the Outlaws, we usually only practice right before a game. It’s still an unbelievable time, but I will never forget the blood, sweat and tears that went into playing for DU.”

These days, the Pioneers are no longer considered underdogs — a change that brings its own challenges. “When you are at the top, everyone will be gunning for you,” Law says. “You are the one with the target on your back. You have to bring it every single day, or someone will knock you out.”

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