Denver acts like it has been there

PHILADELPHIA -- The past two years, Ryan LaPlante walked into his Denver locker room on the Saturday before Memorial Day and heard nothing but the crushing sound of silence, with the Pioneers having been turned away on the doorstep of a lacrosse national championship each time.

This time, when finally LaPlante knew there would be a Monday and Denver would at last play for its first national title, the temptation was to revel in it, to drink in the noise and giddy happiness.

Then Trevor Tierney spoke up.

The Denver assistant is both the son of head coach Bill Tierney, a former Princeton All-American goalkeeper, and a two-time national champion. But when he spoke following the Pioneers' 11-10 overtime win over top-seeded Notre Dame, he was taken back in time to his junior year at Princeton.

"We beat Virginia in the semifinals in a really emotional game, and we went back to the hotel so excited. We got no rest," Trevor said. "We had nothing left for Monday.''

Princeton lost that 2000 title game to Syracuse 13-7, so after he told that story to his Denver players, Trevor had a very simple yet powerful message to deliver to the Pioneers.

"He told us, 'This is the one game that you can't celebrate,'" LaPlante said.

It seems cruel to deny Denver the momentary joy. The Pioneers haven't been knocking on the door of the championship game -- they have been huffing and puffing more than the big bad wolf.

Three of the past four seasons, DU was stymied by a brick wall between it and the final, until the team finally blew the thing over Saturday.

Not that they didn't need a few more huffs and puffs to get to there.

Up 10-6, the Pioneers surrendered every bit of that four-goal lead with four minutes left in the fourth quarter and watched almost helplessly as Notre Dame's Sergio Perkovic turned into a one-man wrecking crew. Perkovic scored five goals in six minutes, then became the ultimate decoy that allowed Nick Ossello to tie the game and force overtime with nine seconds left in regulation.

Three minutes into OT, the ball wound up on the stick of senior captain Wesley Berg. Good things generally happen for the Pioneers when that occurs. Berg, who had scored a behind-the-back, bounce-to-the-goal, through-the-five-hole, nothing-but-net showstopper, broke both the career goal and points records for Denver this season.

Berg took a point-blank shot from the left side of the goal and nonchalantly flipped his stick in the air -- the lacrosse version of a "drop the mic moment" -- while his teammates swarmed from the sidelines.

"I was just thankful the game was over," Berg said afterward. "When you're up that much, you're watching the clock and counting down the seconds. Once we got into overtime, we just wanted to finish the game as fast as we could."

Berg is one of eight seniors to have suffered Denver's close-but-not-quite loses in national semifinals, with their inability to make it to the championship somehow overwriting the sheer incredulity that Denver -- Denver -- was trying to get to a championship game in a sport that typically counts Virginia as a westernmost outpost.

"There's nothing wrong with being a semifinalist," Bill Tierney said. "If you're a semifinalist, you're one of the top four teams in the country."

That's easy for the coach to say, though, given that he has six national championship rings from his days as the boss at Princeton.

But the players' fingers are ringless, and they are the first to admit the improbability of what they've done. Asked if he imagined playing for a national title four years ago, LaPlante first said yes, then sheepishly admitted, "OK, not really."

"This," he added, "has been the ride of a lifetime."

But the Pioneers were tired of getting off the ride before it came to an end.

Maryland knows how that feels. The Terrapins, who survived a furious, late-game rally from Johns Hopkins to win 12-11, advanced to their third title game in five years, but the storied program hasn't brought a trophy to lacrosse's hotbed state in 40 years. The Terps are 0-for-7 in the title game since 1975.

"It's been a long time -- too long," senior and Cockeysville, Maryland, native Jay Carlson said. "We want to bring the championship back to College Park."

The Terrapins will have a shot in no small part due to Matt Rambo. The sophomore Philadelphia native scored two of his four goals, including the would-be game winner with 7:24 left to play, in the fourth quarter and stopped the Blue Jays' late rally.

Consider the heroics Rambo's payback. In October, he was suspended indefinitely from the team and charged with first- and second-degree assault following a fight on campus. The charges were later dropped, and Rambo was reinstated by the time the season started, but he experienced more than a little tough love along the way, according to his coach.

"To say this year has been interesting would be an understatement," John Tillman said. "I've probably been tougher on him than anyone I've ever had, but that's because I love him so much."

The Terps, with the nation's best defense, will need all they can get out of Rambo and his teammates against Denver, which ranks fifth in the nation in scoring offense.

Tillman admitted he hadn't seen a whole lot of the Pioneers this season, but the former Harvard coach knows exactly what he'll get out of Tierney. The two crossed Ivy League paths just briefly -- Tillman took over for the Crimson in 2007, while Tierney left Princeton in 2009 -- but the Denver coach doesn't need much time to make an impression.

In his career, with no scholarships and no real lacrosse history, Tierney turned Princeton into a six-time national champion. Now he has elevated Denver, a team that makes no geographical, historical or common sense, into a stalwart in the sport.

He needed believers at each stop.

His Denver players, much like his Princeton guys, took a flier on a program that didn't join the Division I ranks until 1999. Although on the rise by the time Tierney and staff arrived in 2011 (the year before the Pioneers made their first national semifinal), it was by no means established.

"I didn't know what to expect," LaPlante said. "I just knew these were the people I wanted to play for."

In past trips to the Final Four, Tierney brought motivational speakers to rally the Pioneers or relied on other pump-up gimmicks -- everything except allowing the players to grow beards, much to their disappointment.

He did none of that this year.

There was, he realized, no need for outside motivation anymore. It was all there internally. So when Trevor Tierney spoke about his personal almost, he didn't have to sell the message very hard.

"By the time they got to the locker room, they had moved on," Trevor said. "They know what they're here to do."