May 19, 2011

Tierney Embraces Canadian Influence

by Justin Feil |

Cameron Flint followed Mark Matthews to Denver and found him to be a mentor. Flint pays it forward now to freshman Jeremy Noble. Together, the Canadians account for 40 percent of the Pioneers' prolific offensive production.

© Trevor Brown

Denver lacrosse has gotten pretty good, eh?

The Pioneers earned their first-ever NCAA tournament win, 13-10, over Villanova on Sunday with Canadian players having a hand in 10 of Denver's 13 goals.

Jeremy Noble led the way with four goals and two assists, Pioneers' leading scorer Mark Matthews added three goals and an assist and Cameron Flint had a pair of goals.

"It's definitely nice to see your teammates stepping up," said Matthews, a junior attackman from Oshawa, Ontario, who is the eldest of the three. "Jeremy had a big game and Cammy has been consistent all year putting up numbers. It's nice to see."

Denver's trio – a fourth, freshman Kurtis Green, is redshirting – has helped the Pioneers to their best season in program history. The three are among Denver's top six scorers, part of a unit that has built the Pioneers into the nation's fifth-highest scoring attack and propelled Denver to a 14-2 season.

"I honestly didn't expect it at all," said Flint, a sophomore from Georgetown, Ontario. "I'm impressed with how everything's going."

Bellarmine and Robert Morris each have 11 Canadians on their rosters, and 34 Division I schools have at least one Canadian. Who has the best?

"We think we do," said Denver head coach Bill Tierney. "If you look at the top teams, we certainly have more of them making an impact. The other day, they scored nine or 10 of our 13. There are other Canadian big-time players, but ours are making a big impact."

The number of Canadian players is rising every year in college lacrosse. According to Jason Donville, who charts and is a frequent contributor about Canadians in NCAA lacrosse, the number rose 40 percent just from 2009 to 2010 in Division I. This year, there are 119 in Division I.

"It's something that's here," Tierney said. "I don't care if they're from Greenland if guys can throw the ball in the goal. Canadian kids have this ability. We're going to take kids that are good people and are going to appreciate that we'll help them get their education and do what we ask them to do on the field."

In 22 years at Princeton before coming to Denver after the 2009 season, Tierney never coached a Canadian player.

"A lot of the Canadian kids come from pretty humble backgrounds," he said. "The cost of Princeton, some weren't qualified academically, there were a variety of reasons. Cornell has had some. Noble has a twin playing for Cornell. Brown has had some. Now, they're getting all sorts. We tried on a few cases, and we got beat out by scholarship schools.

"It wasn't for lack of trying."

Tierney is trying to talk more players into crossing the Canadian border and coming 800 miles to Denver. Next year, the four Pioneers are back and a fifth will be added when they welcome highly regarded Wesley Berg, who Tierney says is another impact player.

"I know a bunch of my friends want to try to get out here," Flint said. "There are a few other Canadian guys that would love to transfer to Denver and be a part of it.

"I think you need the right balance. If you have too many Canadians, maybe there's too much run and gun. You do need a good balance. I think that's what we've got here."

The trio accounts has accounted for 81 goals and 44 assists this year. That's 40 percent of Denver's goals and 39 percent of their assists, production that puts the Pioneers' Canucks fourth-best in offensive influence behind Robert Morris, Bellarmine and Stony Brook, according to Donville.

"It's nice we each can contribute," said Flint, who has 24 goals and 10 assists. "As long as the team wins, we're all happy. It's all based on the team's success. If we don't succeed, it doesn't matter how the rest of us do individually."

Tierney's predecessor at Denver, Jamie Munro, was one of the first to recognize how much Canadians could help bolster the program.

"It wasn't that hard," Munro said. "It was a matter of you have to establish a network."

"If I was US Lacrosse, I wouldn't let any kids play field until they were 10 or 12."

Denver coach Bill Tierney, on the value of box lacrosse in skill development.

He didn't land his first Canadian recruits, but when he landed one, it was the start of something big. Current Denver assistant coach Matt Brown came aboard in 2002, and still holds the single-game record for goals with seven. He bridged the gap between Munro and Tierney, for whom he's now in charge of Denver's offense while providing a voice for recruits from north of the border.

"The coaches are realizing it and Canadian families are realizing it's such an opportunity," Tierney said. "Only 25 percent of Canadian kids go to college. You're going to college in the States. They're getting their education and playing lacrosse. It's a triple bonus. It's a win-win for the coaches that get them. It's a win-win for the kids. Until box lacrosse grows in the United States, it'll continue to be this way."

Munro had six Canadians on the roster in 2009 before three – Jamie Lincoln, Ilija Gajic, and Brad Richardson – were dismissed for team rules violations.

"You're going to get great kids and not so great kids no matter what," Munro said. "If you look at the guys on the Denver roster, anybody would want to coach those guys."

Lincoln is now a senior standout at Hofstra, Gajic has remained in-state to play as a starter with the National League Lacrosse's Colorado Mammoth and Richardson played last year for the Mammoth and the Coquitlam Adanacs of the Western Lacrosse Association.

"I felt like they got a bit of a bad break," said Matthews, who was then a freshman. "It was a rough year for everyone. They got the worst of it."

The current crop has brought only positive headlines to the Mile High City. Known for his no-nonsense approach, Tierney has had nothing but good things to say about them.

"It's not a discipline thing," Matthews said. "It's a respect factor. He came in with a clean slate. He washed everything out. We respect him and respect the captains. We don't go out as much as usual. It's a respect thing."

Canadian players have infused his offense with their scoring ability while bringing some flair to the Pioneers. Tempering that flair for the dramatic behind-the-back shot or the low-percentage shot at times is the trick given their box lacrosse backgrounds.

"In high school, you did what you wanted," Matthews said. "If it went in, it went in. If not, you got the ball back in a minute or so."

"It's not a discipline thing," Mark Matthews, Denver's leading scorer, said of Tierney. "It's a respect factor. He came in with a clean slate. He washed everything out. We respect him and respect the captains. We don't go out as much as usual. It's a respect thing."

© Trevor Brown

Matthews has learned to play a new, efficient style for Tierney, one that still allows for plenty of scoring, but also emphasizes getting good scoring chances and not turning the ball over, sometimes at the price of a tempting shot.

"For me, it takes a lot of the excitement away," Matthews said of slowing it down. "I like to run and gun. I'm settling down. He's been real patient. He lets me do some stuff, with boundaries. We're on a give and take."

Tierney won't deny that Matthews can do some special things offensively. He is the first to praise the merits of Canadian players.

"In a lot of cases, they're a little more blue collar, a little tougher," Tierney said. "They don't get rattled in tough situations. They don't get rattled in tough spots. That's the player personality that most of the Canadian players fit into. They love games and pressure situations.

"If I was US Lacrosse," he added, "I wouldn't let any kids play field until they were 10 or 12."

Munro now works to bring the best traits of box lacrosse together with the best aspects of field lacrosse as CEO of 3D Lacrosse, which has offices in Boston and Colorado, which he still makes his home. And he still follows Denver lacrosse, where he sees a perfect blend of box and field lacrosse in a player like Flint.

"He went to high school in the U.S., and he's more like an American middie than a pure Canadian box guy," Munro said. "He's got all the box skills, but he can play.

"The biggest problem for Canadians isn't the up tempo. It's lacrosse IQ. You're going to have more complicated offenses and defenses. It takes years to learn the game. The most complicated it gets in box lacrosse is 5-on-5; 6-on-6 is way more complicated. It's not even close."

As scorers, though, Canadians haven't needed much adjustment time. Instead of the 4-by-4 goal with a heavily padded goalie taking up most of the mouth in box lacrosse, there's a 6-by-6 goal in field lacrosse that looks like the Grand Canyon to players like Matthews, who leads Denver with 44 goals and 22 assists.

"For me, it's great," Matthews said. "I get a lot of those shots in tight and there's a lot of net to shoot in. I think of it as I'm shooting on a box net with a lot of room to miss. It's definitely helped me coming from the smaller nets."

Matthews had a stick in his hands by age 3, and honed his offensive skills playing box lacrosse. He didn't even play field lacrosse until he was 15 or 16. As he got into high school, he made trips to the U.S. to play field lacrosse and be seen by college coaches.

"I don't think anyone ever saw me play box," Matthews said.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with the left-handed shot draws plenty of attention in the middle, but he isn't just the catch-and-shoot guy that Denver wanted him to be in his first year.

"I've never been the goal-scoring type," Matthews said. "In box, I even had more assists. It was tough to be the guy that stands around and just shoots. I'm ready to continue to get better."

Said Tierney: "He was a crease guy. He relied more on other people getting him the ball. Now he can do it all."

Even though Flint had the advantage of prepping for three years at Salisbury School in Connecticut, it used an up-tempo attack because of a wealth of Canadian players on the team.

"Having to hold the ball, it was a little change," Flint said. "It wasn't too hard to get used to. I've completely bought in."

There are still moments for the dramatic, and the Canadians have provided it. In their NCAA opener, after Matthews tied it with an unassisted goal, Denver took the lead on a goal from Flint 12 seconds after the faceoff for a 10-9 lead. They never trailed again. Earlier, they had erased their biggest deficit of the game in no time as Matthews scored and the Pioneers got goals from Noble and Flint within an eight-second span to tie it.

"That's a perfect example of what we can do when we're pushing the ball," Flint said. "It was right off the faceoff. Chase Carraro pulled it back to Jeremy, he faked the pass to Mark and threw it back to me. I was wide open."

There will likely be more such moments when the sixth-seeded Pioneers play third-seeded Johns Hopkins -- and its relentless brand of defense -- in the second NCAA quarterfinal Saturday at Hofstra.

It's no coincidence the Canadians work so well together. Flint had played with Matthews on Team Canada and against him growing up, and Matthews was one reason that Flint felt at home in Denver. Matthews did all he could to help with Flint's transition, and now Flint guides Noble, who is a freshman from Orangeville, Ontario.

"Anything he needs help with, academically or lacrosse wise, I try to help him out," Flint said. "We're both midfielders. We're all really good friends and hang out together."

And together, they are helping to make Denver one of the hot destinations for the influx of Canadian college players.

"There were some guys that didn't have the opportunity to go play field," Matthews said. "They took the professional route and that's what they're doing now. If they got the chance, they'd love to play here."

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