Bill Tierney’s coaching odyssey tends to find its way into the lives of many of the best lacrosse players from Colorado.
And what exactly was the response to Bill Tierney’s decision after the 2009 season to leave Princeton, where he’d won 6 NCAA lacrosse national championships, and take over the head coaching position at the University of Denver?
John McPhee, arguably the ablest writer to turn his attention to the sport of lacrosse, probably put it best.
In a 2010 New Yorker profile of Tierney, (which, among other things, also provides more than a sampling of the coach’s vinegary charm), McPhee notes that “The Eastern lacrosse world reacted to the news as if Vince Lombardi had left the N.F.L. to teach American football at Harrow”.
In fairness, lacrosse in Colorado generally, and at DU in particular, weren’t exactly the backwater equivalent of a group of British boarding school toffs having a go at the pigskin.
In 2009 coach Jamie Munro’s Denver team had made the NCAA tournament two out of the previous three seasons.
It’d begun the season ranked #16 nationally.
It ended the season 7-8.
Though it was plagued by disciplinary problems and general underachievement, that 2009 DU team featured players such as Charley and John Dickenson, two of the best all-time lacrosse players from Texas, Dillon Roy, Andrew Lay, and Todd Baxter—talent that had inevitably at times managed to shine through.
For instance, the 2009 team had been one of the few teams to come within a 2-goal sniffing range of a Notre Dame team undefeated entering the NCAA tournament.
It had also featured 10 native Coloradoans.
Bill Tierney and Colorado Lacrosse Recruits
So there was lacrosse played in Colorado prior to Bill Tierney’s arrival at Denver, though this was something that the Known Lacrosse World at the time didn’t seem to fully appreciate.
But did anyone mention this to Bill Tierney?
You almost would’ve gotten the impression at the time that Tierney had made this somewhat significant career move solely on a leap of faith—like a “Blind Date” contestant with a hat and whistle.
And you might’ve concluded as well that the coach needed satellite images and/or geospatial data—provided perhaps by Princeton’s nearby Institute for Advanced Study—just to establish the existence, and precise location, of the state of Colorado.
The reality was a little different.
Tierney had been recruiting players from Colorado since 1988, when attackman Chris McHugh had joined the Tigers out of Manual High School in Denver.
From then on, it’s been pointed out, there were players from Colorado on every Princeton roster up to 2005.
The Colorado Lacrosse Scene Pre-Tierney
Bill Tierney had another significant tie to Colorado.
His son, an All-American goalie at Princeton, lived there.
Trevor Tierney had not only been a member of Jamie Munro’s coaching staff at DU, but had also played professional lacrosse in the area.
Pro lacrosse had been one of the catalysts for the growth of the game in Colorado. Organized lacrosse had been played in the state since the 1960’s, with club teams centered around schools like Cherry Creek, Colorado Academy, East, and Kent Denver.
Pro teams not only gave the game additional exposure, but also provided a ready-made source of talent for clinics and local coaching positions (a pattern that would be repeated in other non-traditional lacrosse areas).
The Denver Rifles franchise (now defunct) premiered in 1986, coinciding with growth in the high school game sufficient to support two divisions in the state.
The sport got an additional boost from two new local franchises, the Colorado Mammoth of the indoor NLL in 2003, and the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse, which played the traditional field game, in 2006. By that time, the sport had been officially sanctioned by the state at the high school level for boys since 1999 (and actually one year earlier on the girls’ side).
By 2011, 83 high schools in the state were fielding teams at the varsity level.
The Vail Shootout
Another constant in seeding the sport’s growth in Colorado has been the Vail Shootout, the nation’s oldest annual lacrosse tournament.
Since the early 1970’s, the Shootout has brought together to Vail players from across the country. Originally participants skewed toward the older side–there are still divisions for players 60 and older–but the event has long since encompassed divisions ranging from high schoolers to elite teams comprised of college and professional players.
The event annually attracts over 2,000 participants.
If you’re a defenseman, it’s only logical that you might conceivably get a job involving physical protection—maybe even end up as a Secret Service agent.
And if you’re a defenseman from Princeton, you end up as a staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Christian Cook has been both.
But before then the graduate of Manual High School in Denver was a two-time All-American (once First-Team) at Princeton, a member of three Tiger national championship teams, and a teammate of players such as Josh Sims, Jesse Hubbard, Jon Hess, Chris Massey, and Trevor Tierney.
Cook was a dominant player on a succession of dominant Princeton teams.
Five times during Princeton’s undefeated ’97 season, the Tigers’ scoring came to rest like a broken clock at 19—the result not of fatigue or boredom but of the so-called Tierney Rule which, mercifully, drew a firm line at that goal total.
One of those games was the NCAA finals, in which Princeton beat Maryland 19-7 (and looked like it otherwise could’ve easily hit 30).
In the ’98 finals, Maryland fared better against the Tigers: they lost by only 10.
But those teams, and especially Cook, were tested.
More famously, in 1998, the year in which he was selected USILA Defenseman of the Year and won the Schmeisser Award as the nation’s best defenseman, he also managed to earn NCAA All-Tournament honors, despite having to sit out the finals on crutches.
Cook did this largely on the strength of a semi-final performance against Syracuse in which he held scoreless the nation’s leading scorer, Casey Powell.
Princeton won that game—-11-10.
(Cook and Powell would later be reunited at the 2006 World Lacrosse Championships as members of Team USA).
Before launching a non-lacrosse life that would eventually take him to business school at Georgetown and Microsoft, Cook was a two-time MLL All-Star as a professional, as well as a member of a MLL championship team.
High Point’s Asher Nolting, voted SoCon Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 for the second straight season, was one of about 85 Coloradoans on 2020 D1 college lacrosse rosters caught up in the suspended season.
This kind of recognition from the Southern Conference might not have counted for that much—even a few short years ago.
But the SoCon is definitely a league on the up, with not only High Point but also Richmond and Air Force getting recent wins over elite national teams, and programs like Jacksonville starting to gain traction.
And Nolting has never exactly been guilty of fattening up on soft competition.
In fact, it was the 9 total points he compiled against Duke and Virginia in 2019 that helped cement his reputation.
Overall, the Cherry Creek alum ranked fifth in the country in points per-game.
The attackman had entered his 2020 junior season as a Third-Team All-American.
HPU itself begun 2020 as a top-20 team, but had not had the success it achieved in 2019 season, during which it had defeated Duke and eventual national champion Virginia before stumbling with late-season losses to St. John’s and Jacksonville, and failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Against a heavily frontloaded non-conference schedule that included Maryland, Duke, Cornell, and Virginia, High Point ended the truncated 2020 season 2-8, with Nolting off his 2019 pace.
And the numbers he put up against top-level teams had, as always, been impressive: a goal and 5 assists vs. Virginia, a goal and 3 assists against Maryland and the same against Cornell, and 2 goals vs. Duke.
Again, we won’t know how HPU and Nolting would’ve fared against the back-end of the 2020 schedule, but Nolting has proven himself an elite talent.
If you were a local watching the 2014 Lacrosse World Championships, held in Denver that year, some of the line-ups may have caused you to do a double-take.
The offensive threats for the Japanese team, for instance, included Yuji Tadahira, Wataru Tsungu….and Andrew Lay.
Lay was a graduate of Denver East High School.
Colton McCaffrey, out of Chaparral, who would go on to be a member of Denver’s 2015 national championship team, was also playing—for Thailand.
And then there was Dillon Roy.
Dillon Roy qualified for Team Canada, a team that ultimately upset the U.S. 8-5 that year to win the world championship, by virtue of a Canadian grandparent.
But Roy was unmistakably a homegrown product.
The Denver-born defenseman went from Denver East, to the University of Denver, and ultimately to the Denver Outlaws of the MLL.
At DU, Roy had been a crucial bridge between Jamie Munro’s team and the new Bill Tierney-led regime, serving as Tierney’s first (and sole) captain in the 2010 season, and as the anchor of a defense that also included Cornell transfer (and California native) Nick Gradinger.
Roy was an Honorable Mention USILA selection in his 2010 senior season, and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection in both the ECAC and the Great Western Lacrosse League.
(Historical note: Denver had been a member through the 2009 season of the now-defunct Great Western Lacrosse League, which consisted of Notre Dame, Denver, Ohio State, Air Force, Bellarmine, and Quinnipiac. With the departure from the league of Notre Dame and Quinnipiac in 2010, Denver became part of the ECAC).
Eric Law’s college lacrosse journey involved playing in three Final Fours, at two different positions, for two different programs, in two different divisions.
After receiving scant attention from DU at local Arapahoe High School, where he’d helped the Warriors win their first Colorado state championship in 2009, Law wound up at D3 powerhouse Salisbury in Maryland.
From Salisbury, he reversed the usual route of Seagull players like Tony Mendes: he then proceeded to transfer from D3 Salisbury to a top-tier D1 program.
But it wasn’t as if he made the move on the heels of a shattering D3 career.
He’d sat out most of his one season at Salisbury with a shoulder separation and had recorded just seven goals and two assists at attack.
After transferring for his sophomore year to Denver, now under Bill Tierney’s direction, Law would spend most of the season at midfield.
He then hit his stride—but only in his junior year, and only at attack.
Law became part of a potent attack unit that also included Alex Demopoulos and Mark Matthews, recording 40 goals and 35 assists in his senior year, including a game-winner with 13 seconds left in regulation to defeat North Carolina in the NCAA quarterfinals (one of 6 points that day).
A Tewaaraton Award nominee in 2013, Law graduated from DU as an All-American and, in only three seasons, the sixth-leading scorer in school history.
But is Law the best lacrosse player to come out of the state of Colorado?
The Denver Post’s Kyle Newman, who grew up with and competed with Law in several sports, recently made that case.
But the bulk of that argument centers not on Law’s D1 record but on his extraordinary professional career—which has included 5 all-star appearances and a league championship in the MLL (Law left the MLL in 2019 for the Premier Lacrosse League).
Law’s stature in the state—and in the game generally—is also helped by his longtime association (along with players like Dillon Roy above) with Denver City Lax, a non-profit aimed at developing the sport among kids and communities that might otherwise financially or practically excluded from participating.
Mike Law may have been the University of Denver’s first bona fide star, and the first player in program history to be recognized as an honorable mention All-American.
He was also the first player west of the Mississippi to be selected for the U.S. national team.
Entering his senior season in 2001, the Regis Jesuit grad had recorded goal totals in the three previous seasons of 26, 31, and 32, and was described by Inside Lacrosse as “among the premier returning attackman in the country”.
Law finished his DU career with 136 points, with 92 goals and 44 assists, and went on to play professionally for both the Denver Outlaws of the MLL, and the Colorado Mammoth of the NLL.
Tanner Scales didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone when he entered Virginia in 2012 as a defenseman coming out of Regis Jesuit.
Inside Lacrosse that year had pegged the 6-2, 200 defenseman as the 14th best incoming freshman nationally—regardless of position.
(Michael Tagliaferri of California had been the only other non-Easterner to make even the list’s top twenty that year; another Coloradoan, fellow UA All-American and Virginia recruit, Matt Florence of Kent Denver, came in at #60).
Though he would end his career under current Hoos coach Lars Tiffany, he was the prototypical, multi-sport recruit favored by Tiffany’s predecessor, Dom Starsia. Scales had been on two state championship hockey teams at Regis, and during a sophomore year spent at Salisbury School in Connecticut, an all-state selection.
He joined a Cavalier team that included Regis alums Rhody Heller and Tanner Ottenbreit.
He didn’t disappoint.
Scales was chosen ACC Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches; the next year he was a USILA All-American.
He was a third-team All-American in his sophomore year.
The two-time Virginia captain began 2016 as a first-team All-American but had to miss the entire season due to injury.
During his playing career he was recognized as the anchor of the Cavalier defense, and as one of the most accomplished defenseman in the country.
Long-stick middies (and defensive middies generally) tend to get overlooked generally and, in particular, in lists like this.
Macartney entered Syracuse in 2012.
He’d been an All-American at Colorado Academy, but by his own admission, probably wouldn’t have attempted the leap to one of the nation’s premier programs without the encouragement of two SU alums and former stars: John Zulberti and Dan Pratt.
Pratt had been an All-American at The ‘Cuse in ’88, Gary Gait’s freshman year. The two would later be reunited in 2005 when Gait, then the head coach of the NLL’s Colorado Mammoth, hired Pratt as a defensive coordinator. Pratt also coached at Colorado Academy.
At Syracuse, Macartney evolved into one of the nation’s premier LSM’s, one who would be mentioned in the same breath as Brown star Larken Kemp.
And, significantly, Macartney routinely drew the opponent’s toughest defensive assignments—which could be especially daunting given the Orange’s strength of schedule.
In his 2015 senior season, for instance, Macartney in consecutive weeks held scoreless Duke All-American Myles Jones, and Notre Dame All-American Sergio Perkovic.
An honorable mention All-American in 2105, Macartney also played in that year’s North-South Senior All-Star game.
Moscatelli went to high school at the Canterbury School in Connecticut, but he was from Frisco.
The Duke captain was an explosive scorer, scoring two goals within 43 seconds in an NCAA Tournament game vs. Maryland, and six against Colgate in a regular season game.
Mocatelli ended his Duke career with 119 points at midfield (85, 34).
In his senior year (’95), he was both an All-ACC selection and third-team All-American.
Colorado Lacrosse Greats Honorable Mentions and a Jamie Munro Postscript
There are a number of players who should be acknowledged as honorable mentions for the list above. They include Kyle Pless, Bailey Tills, Nick Ossello, Colton Jackson, Ryan Zordani, Joey Murray, Jack Bobzien, Dylan Johnson, Dave Law, and Geoff Bieging.
One loose end in the whole Colorado lacrosse narrative is the fate of displaced DU coach Jamie Munro. The impression often left is that once Bill Tierney decamped from Princeton, Munro proceeded to slink off into lacrosse oblivion.
Actually Munro went on to found and develop the highly successful national training and events company 3d Lacrosse. Now running JM3 Sports, Munro has been recognized for importing into field lacrosse training the play, techniques, and concepts traditionally associated with the indoor box lacrosse game.
David Parry is the founder and editor of LaxAcrossAmerica. A New York-based digital marketer and copywriter, he played Division 1 lacrosse as a walk-on at Brown.