May 16, 2013

UnCensered: Recent Champions Haven't Been Afraid to Make Changes

by Joel Censer | | Twitter | Censer Archive

Bill Tierney embraced a philosophical shift upon arrival Denver and meeting with offensive coordinator Matt Brown. But the Pioneers may meet their match on Sunday, against a North Carolina team that has re-invented its identity this year and looks comfortable in its own skin.
© John Strohsacker/

Last fall, former Lacrosse Magazine writer Matt Forman interviewed Bill Tierney about his shift in philosophy from Fred Smith protégé/quick slide architect/defensive genius at Princeton to suddenly becoming the ringmaster of the greatest offensive circus on Earth at Denver.

Tierney said: "I was always so obsessed with not giving up more than seven goals to win, and now I'm obsessed with scoring 13 to win.

"There was a very clear moment in time where that shifted: one of my first meetings with [assistant coach] Matt Brown here at Denver. When I came here four years ago, he was 28 years old, he had more maturity than I do. I sat down with him, and we were talking about him staying on my staff, and I said, 'Matt, you know I'm a defensive guy, it's hard to be an offensive coach. You might want to call [former Princeton, current Loyola offensive] coach Dave Metzbower. It's hard to be an offensive coordinator when the head guy is such a stickler for 'perfect' defense. My goal has always been to keep opponents at seven goals or under.'

"And he said, 'Coach, with these guys, you'll never be able to play and win like that.' I said, 'Well, tell me what we can do then.' And he said, 'We can score a lot of goals. A lot of goals.' Not begrudgingly, more out of due respect for Matt and our players, I didn't want to change their mindset. It's a positive, go-to-the-goal mindset. I've said for 1,000 years, it's much easier for a coach to change than it is for a group of players to change. If we've done anything 'right,' I think it's that we've changed our way of thinking. We still only want to give up seven, but we we're certainly willing and happy to win a game 13-11, as opposed to 7-5. It's just who we are now."

Wow. If that quote doesn't deserve its own standalone plaque somewhere in the coaching Hall of Fame, I don't know what does.

Here's a first-ballot Hall of Fame skipper, known for inventing a grinding, possession-oriented brand of half-field lacrosse, who quickly embraces another way to play. It takes a lot of confidence for a coach to admit that his schemes — schemes that, in Tierney's case, won him national championships at Princeton — may not work at a place like Denver.

Anyway, it got me thinking. The championship teams of the past five years have been the ones that made changes.

In 2008 and 2009, Syracuse won titles when it shook up the coaching staff and became more dedicated at the defensive end.

Duke won in 2010 after coach John Danowski started coming down harder on a few star players.

In 2011, Virginia decided to be serious about a culture change, kicked players off the team who didn't buy in, then relied on a zone defense and a Steele Stanwick-led, team-inspired offense.

Last year, Charley Toomey shifted Loyola to a faster gear as he focused on unsettled offense and shooting early and often. The Hounds won their first ever national title.

Watching all of the games last week, I thought that the teams which advanced were mostly ones in which players and coaches had been willing to make concessions, learn from past mistakes, self-evaluate and evolve when necessary.

Duke super-freshman Case Matheis, who was inserted into the starting lineup in March to make the offense a bit more dynamic, scored the game-winner off the dodge in overtime against Loyola. Did you see Danowski's smile when he did?

Yale, which in 2012 was eliminated because the Bulldogs had trouble making the requisite amount of plays against Notre Dame, used some unbelievable second-half performances from Dylan Levings, Peter Johnson and Conrad Oberbeck to run by Penn State.

Syracuse, whose past few playoff runs have been marked by faceoff struggles and anemic offense, dealt with Bryant technician Kevin Massa going 22-for-23 at the dot by being efficient in other ways. The Orange caused turnovers, possessed the rock, cleared effectively and used an offense predicated less and dodging and more on cutting.

But the most evident change to me came in North Carolina. The Tar Heels were playing a Lehigh squad which liked to squawk and chirp, and as the booth reminded us time and time again, make the game less about speed and skills and more into something resembling a "street fight."

But Carolina has found an identity. A year ago, UNC might have folded when the Lehigh defensemen started doling out cheap shots, attackman David DiMaria began bullying to the net or when Patrick Corbett finished an unbelievable behind-the-back shot. But instead the Tar Heels responded, throwing a baby blue-and-white uppercut right back at the Mountain Hawks in a 16-7 blowout.

Part of Carolina's success can be attributed to unique dodgers and skilled offensive players who can bring it from anywhere and everywhere. There's the established three-headed monster at attack that's unlike anything we've ever seen in lacrosse. The midfield is versatile with different types of players who can work in different kinds of space.

But Chapel Hill has never had a shortage of dynamic playmakers. Quint's right; these Heels are looking like championship weekend heavyweights less because of individual talent and more because they figured out how to play hard. It starts at the attack where tone setters Marcus Holman, Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter are willing to score goals and do the dirty work, riding opponents with the fury of a thousand suns. In the middle of the field and on the backline, there's a healthy mix of super-skilled athletes who thrive in transition (Ryan Creighton, Kieran McDonald), and guys who have a chip on their shoulder and aren't afraid to mix it up (Greg McBride, Evan Connell).

On Sunday, Carolina will go toe-to-toe with Tierney's Denver squad. A team that in many ways is an archetype in Division I in figuring out what style and what players will make them successful and then running with it.

I don't know if UNC's R.G. Keenan can consistently beat Chase Carraro on faceoffs. I don't know if Holman and company can go goal-for-goal with Denver's Wes Berg and the rest of the Canucks. But I do know that this North Carolina team, like those championship teams from earlier, have made the necessary changes and looked in the mirror long enough not to be scared.

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