This Saturday’s Lehigh at Denver showdown isn’t just any game. There are a number of parallels between the two programs, who have taken similar paths from relative unknowns to national prominence. A meeting of the minds between the coaching staffs helped spark Lehigh’s record-breaking 2012 season while helping the Pioneers advance to the National Quarterfinals for a second straight season.
Expectations for both programs continue to rise. The Mountain Hawks are #8 in this week’s Nike/Inside Lacrosse Media Poll while Denver comes in at #11. The USILA Coaches Poll also has Denver at #11, but the Mountain Hawks at #12.
The head coaches are two of each other’s biggest fans. In January of 2012, Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese contacted friend and current Denver coach Bill Tierney to see if he could bring his staff out to the Mile High City.
“Every year, I try to take my coaching staff on a preseason road trip to visit with other top coaches in the game, talk about X’s and O’s, watch a practice if possible and talk about how they run their programs,” said Cassese. “We have done this with Dave Cottle (and staff) when he was at Maryland and Dom Starsia (and staff) at Virginia.”
The Lehigh and Denver staffs talked X’s and O’s, program philosophies and more. For Cassese, one of the primary reasons he wanted to meet with Tierney was defense. Brendan Callahan had just been promoted to Defensive Coordinator (after Taylor Wray was hired as Saint Joseph’s head coach), and Errol Wilson was new to the staff as Associate Defensive Coordinator.
“Given the level of respect I have for Coach T and the incredible amount of success he’s realized in his coaching career, I always wanted to sit down with him and pick his brain on several topics, including lacrosse, program management and life as a coach beyond the game,” said Cassese. “I also thought the timing was perfect. After four years at Lehigh, I realized that we needed a philosophical shift in our defensive strategy. I thought who better to learn from than the man who is credited for revolutionizing the way defense was played with his Princeton teams in the 1990s.”
Although not the sole reason for Lehigh’s turnaround, that meeting helped lead to great things in Bethlehem, Pa. The Mountain Hawks’ defense wasn’t bad by any means in 2011 (allowing 9.38 goals per game), but took it up a level in 2012, finishing second nationally (allowing only 6.82 goals per game).
Lehigh’s staff of Cassese, Callahan, Wilson and Tom Compitello got together with Tierney, Matt Brown and Trevor Tierney (Bill’s son) of Denver.
“We listened as Coach Tierney talked about his defensive philosophy and we watched as he broke down bits and pieces of the systems he was implementing at Denver and those he had success with while at Princeton,” said Cassese. “Matt Brown, Tom Compitello, and I went back and forth on offense and extra man offense.”
On the defensive side, Trevor Tierney, Wilson and Callahan talked at length about goalie play.
“I also had the chance to sit down and talk one-on-one with Coach Tierney about how he runs his program and life as a coach, both on the field, off the field and away from campus,” said Cassese. “Needless to say, it was a highly productive day. Once again, I left with a new found respect for Coach Tierney and everything he represents as a coach and educator.”
“Despite the huge age difference [between Kevin and myself], we have a lot in common,” said Tierney. “Our beliefs are very similar. What we do in athletics is a worthy and worthwhile occupation. It’s about teaching and mentoring as much as it is about winning. I think Kevin, as successful as he’s been as an athlete, has always been willing to give back and has always been a humble superstar. That’s a rare statement this day in age.”
It was a give and take as the session was incredibly helpful for Tierney and his Denver staff.
“Although Kevin came here with his staff, we got as much out of it as them,” said Tierney. “I feel really good when a young coach like Kevin or any young coach asks me for my opinion on things. It’s something in lacrosse I’ve always believed is part of ‘what you do’. You give back to the game as best you can.
“It’s very flattering when you have someone like Kevin ask if he and his staff can come out. I want everybody to understand that the meeting was as meaningful to us as it was for them.”
The connection between Cassese and Tierney goes back to Cassese’s Comsewogue High School days in the late 1990s. Kevin’s college choices were down to Duke and Princeton, with one of the biggest draws to Princeton being Coach Tierney.
“My eventual choice was Duke, but my relationship with Coach Tierney continued and grew even stronger between 2002-2006 when I played for the U.S. National Teams that went to Australia in 2002 and Canada in 2006, alongside Coach Tierney’s son, Trevor,” said Cassese. “Towards the tail end of that time, I was just starting my career in college coaching as an assistant coach at Stony Brook and Duke. Coach Tierney served as a mentor and a reference as I pursued the head coaching position at Lehigh and eventually became the head coach in the summer of 2007.”
“I always admired Kevin. Obviously, he was a great player in high school, but I got to know his family through that process,” said Tierney. “There were a number of common connections [between families]. I have great respect and admiration for Kevin and his family.
“As he moved into the coaching world, I knew he’d become a superstar. It was just a matter of time,” Tierney continued. “His handling of being the interim coach of Duke when that whole event went down showed maturity of someone a heck of a lot older than he was at the time. I knew Lehigh was getting a superstar.”
Flash forward back to today. Cassese has transformed Lehigh into a top 10 program and National Championship Contender while Tierney continues to win wherever he goes. He’s led Denver to the NCAA Tournament each of his three years, including a National Semifinal appearance in 2011 and National Quarterfinal appearance last season.
When Cassese heard Denver was looking for participants in its annual Face-Off Classic, he knew it’d be a worthwhile opportunity. Lehigh’s current seniors participated in the event as freshmen, beating Air Force and losing to Denver. It’s a great opportunity for the Mountain Hawks and Pioneers to play top-notch NCAA Tournament caliber competition.
As Tierney said, “Being 2,000 miles away from most Division I lacrosse programs, any time you can get a top 10 team to come to your place, you grab it.”
“For a team that’s looking for a top 10 game in and is willing to make the trip, we want to help them as best we can,” he continued. “It worked out that way. Then secondly and most importantly, with their season last year, it’s very important that you continue to play a great strength of schedule.”
Lehigh is doing just that as the Mountain Hawks are set to face four teams ranked in the top 11 of this week’s Media Poll – UMass (7), Penn State (9), Colgate (10) and Denver (11) – while the Mountain Hawks are ranked eighth themselves.
It was fitting that the two coaching staffs met prior to last seasons as the parallels between the programs are endless.
One connection is the Canadian presence. This year’s Denver squad features three Canadians while Lehigh has two. Oshawa, Ontario native Mark Matthews just graduated as Denver’s all-time leader in goals (155) and points (216). In addition, Coach Brown is a native Canadian and Coach Compitello played alongside some of the best Canadians in the game while at Stony Brook.
Tierney helped lead a non-traditional lacrosse power to Championship Weekend in 2011 while Cassese hopes to bring Lehigh to similar heights. Tierney has enjoyed success with freshmen goaltenders (Jamie Faus in 2011 and Ryan LaPlante last season) while Lehigh’s Matt Poillon was named Patriot League Goalie of the Year and an All-American in leading the Mountain Hawks to their first NCAA Tournament appearance last season.
In the end, Tierney focuses on building a program, a system that’s built to last, and he knows Cassese is building Lehigh the right way.
“When you build a program, it starts from the beginning with having a perspective,” said Tierney. “If you’re going to do it right, you’re going to ask kids to sacrifice, ask kids to go to class, ask kids to look good, ask kids to love each other and respect their opponent… all those things.
“Sometimes you go through rough spots,” he continued. “My first year at Princeton, I was 2-13 then 6-8. If you take shortcuts and maybe you win a few more games early, it doesn’t pay off in the long run. Kevin has done it the right way; he’s demanded of his players to be the right kind of people as well as the right kind of players.”
“I have a ton of respect for Coach Tierney and the Denver program,” said Cassese. “Their trip to the Final Four in 2011 and Quarterfinals in 2012 was incredibly inspiring, especially for programs outside the ACC and not named Johns Hopkins or Syracuse. We certainly hope for similar success here at Lehigh.
“Obviously, we are going to try our best to be victorious on Saturday, but win or lose, I can guarantee you that my staff, my team and I will all be better because of the experience playing against a Bill Tierney coached team.”