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The Denver Pioneers: A New Lacrosse Superpower?

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I received an email on Friday with only one word in the subject header: "Denver."

When I actually opened the email, all that was in the body of the message was a link to this 1971 Sports Illustrated article about Cornell, entitled "Big Red Votes Itself No. 1" with a subtitle of "Ignored in last year's ballots, Cornell triumphed on the field."

At first I thought I was getting bamboozled.  What do Bill Tierney's Denver Pioneers have to do with Richie Moran's powerhouse Big Red teams from the '70's?  After reading the article, however, a lot of parallels starting emerging.  The more I thought about it, Denver's rise to the top of the college lacrosse universe is very similar to Cornell's -- and to a different extent, upstate New York's -- ascension to lacrosse glory.

Each story turns on a simple fact: A major tournament performance finally propelled these marginalized programs into the consciousness of those followers of the game situated in hotbed regions.  For Moran and Cornell, it was grabbing the attention of the Baltimore establishment:

"People in Baltimore are brainwashed," said Cornell Coach Richie Moran, a little round man whose face is all Irish and whose soul is blarney and Bilko in equal measures. "Nobody there knows how good our lacrosse is. They need to be enlightened. We've been trying to schedule them for years, but they say they're booked solid."

That sounds eerily like Denver, doesn't it?

  • A growing pocket of the game, Colorado has not only produced players that can contribute at the Division I level, but has also fostered program growth that is most notably seen at the University of Denver.  Colorado State has, since recent memory, been a serious contender in the MCLA.  We all may be sleeping a bit on how good Colorado lacrosse -- and, residually, Denver Pioneers lacrosse -- really is.
  • It's all about scheduling for Denver.  Hell, it took the Pioneers until their game against Duke on Long Island for many folks to realize just how good Denver could be.  Tucked away in the ECAC and forced to grab games whenever and wherever they can, they rarely have the opportunity to have the spotlight shined on them.  Instead of getting one or two games a year against established programs, if Denver was able to get three or four, I think we'd have a better sense of that program's momentum.
  • Even after Denver's run toward the end of the season (including the destruction of Duke), the Pioneers still had work to do to convince everyone that their club was among the elite this season.  There was much chatter about the Pioneers' seeding in the NCAA Tournament and whether they deserved it or not.  As Denver has shown throughout the post-season, such worry was moot.

The article continues to talk about Cornell's roster in that 1971 season and how diverse it was compared to those clubs that had been around the block a few times:

Moran provided the enlightenment he promised with a team that is geographically more diverse and far less experienced than championship clubs usually are. Both the Cornell and Maryland rosters were made up largely of players raised in Maryland or Long Island, where the high school lacrosse is the best. There were more Long Islanders (20) on the two teams than Marylanders (19), and surprisingly, the Terrapins, with 12, had most of them. Cornell has also drawn heavily from the game's newest breeding ground, upstate New York. All three of the Big Red's top scorers are from towns north of the school's location in Ithaca. Before coming to Cornell both Al Rimmer, from Toronto, and Frank Davis, a Tuscarora Indian who was raised on a reservation near Buffalo, had participated only in box lacrosse, the indoor game favored by Canadians and Iroquois that is played during the summer on defrosted hockey rinks. Tri-captain Bob Shaw lives in La-Fayette, N.Y. where Onondagas and Oneidas comprise half the high school enrollment. Five of the six midfielders on Shaw's prep team are now captains of college squads.

There are freakish similarities between that Cornell team and Denver's current outfit:

  • The Pioneers are running with tons of Canadians that are contributing for them all over the field.  This is a roster that is built from all over the globe, one of the most diverse 40-man units in Division I.  While the traditional hotbeds are represented on the roster -- Tierney would be silly to not recruit in these areas as he has so many ties there -- Denver has opened itself to new locations to find talent and it has paid dividends.
  • The box lacrosse parallels are especially apparent.  Denver's offensive showcase is colored with the background of the box game as so many of their big contributors have been brought up on the carpet and the floor. 

I think the biggest takeaway is this: Denver's story is not unique, and that isn't a problem as the trailblazer that preceded it -- Cornell -- ultimately proved that the blueprint is one that can breed continued success.