Denver Wins First Lacrosse Title as Tierney Completes Turnaround

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  • First school west of the Mississippi River to take title
  • Senior Wesley Berg scores five goals in 10-5 win over Maryland

Wesley Berg scored five goals as the University of Denver captured its first men’s lacrosse national title with a 10-5 victory over the University of Maryland.

With the win Denver became the 10th different school to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s title and first from a state that doesn’t touch the Atlantic Ocean. The title reflects a changing lacrosse landscape as the sport grows in popularity and geographic reach. 

"If I can take my DU hat off for a second and put my old man lacrosse hat on for a second, I hope what it does is give some athletic directors some courage and some school presidents some courage, instead of hiding behind cost and hiding behind Title IX," said Denver’s Bill Tierney, who became the first coach at college lacrosse’s top level to win seven titles, and first to win with two different schools. "This is a sport that means something in our country."

Denver never trailed in the game, racing out to a 3-1 lead on three goals from Berg at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The senior attack finished the season with a team-record 58 goals and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Pioneers goalie Ryan LaPlante, also a senior, made 13 saves in the win. Maryland became the sixth team in NCAA tournament history to score five goals or fewer in an NCAA championship game.

Denver surprised the lacrosse world in 2009 when it hired coach Bill Tierney away from Princeton, where he won six NCAA titles. In Tierney’s first five seasons the Pioneers’ budget nearly doubled to $2.1 million, according to data schools submit to the U.S. Department of Education. The team has made four semifinals under Tierney, with this year being the only finals appearance.

Denver in 2011 trademarked itself as the "Lacrosse Capital of the West," a move that coincided with the geographical growth of the game. More western schools and conferences have begun offering the sport, and non-east coast programs like Denver and Notre Dame, who the Pioneers beat in the semifinals, have grown into some of the nation’s best.

One of three profitable sports at Denver, the men’s lacrosse team has helped fund stadium repairs, drive donations and raise the profile of the university, according to Athletic Director Peg Bradley-Doppes. She said the school’s success under Tierney "changed the complexion of the sport."

"We became an outlier on a national stage, which is great for the growth of the sport and its visibility," Bradley-Doppes said in a telephone interview prior to the semifinals. "Selfishly, it has also been incredible for our university."

The Pioneers this year hosted a pair of quarterfinal games, the first time that stage of the NCAA tournament was ever held west of the Mississippi River. Denver is more than 1,500 miles west of the previous Western-most school with an NCAA title, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

The runner-up result is a familiar one for Maryland, which won its only two NCAA titles in 1973 and 1975. Since then the Terrapins have made 18 semifinals and finished runner-up eight times.

"If you’re an alum or you’re from the state of Maryland, I don’t know how you couldn’t be proud of just the grit, the heart, the resolve these guys showed all year," Maryland coach John Tillman said after the game. "Selfishly for me they took me on a journey, an amazing one, from August to now, one that I’ll never forget."