National championship matchup a win for college lacrosse

PHILADELPHIA -- They will throw their gloves, sticks and helmets in the air and crash together into a celebratory dog pile. There will be high-fives, pictures and interviews and eventually, the winners will take their brand-new national championship trophy and parade it around Lincoln Financial Field in a victory lap.

But the real winner on Memorial Day -- when No. 4 seed Denver and sixth-seeded Maryland meet to decide the national championship (1 p.m. ET on ESPN2) -- will be lacrosse.

The sport can't lose, because the trophy will come to rest in either Denver or Maryland, one representing uncharted territory for a sport long chastised for its geographic exclusiveness, the other one of the game's hotbeds but bereft of a title for 40 long years.

Which will be better?

It depends on your perspective.

If you're an optimist, a national championship for Denver represents a critical step for the sport.

The NCAA has been crowning lacrosse champions since 1971. Just nine schools have split up the bounty in those 43 years, none farther west than Charlottesville, Virginia.

But the sport's popularity is growing exponentially, especially in places that once never heard of a crease outside of the one that runs down a well-ironed pair of pants. According to the latest USA lacrosse participation survey, lacrosse is growing the fastest right now in California, the Pacific Northwest and the South.

This year Michigan added Division I lacrosse to its athletic department arsenal, and next year Hampton, an HBCU school, will do the same. Air Force already sponsors the sport. So do Jacksonville University and the University of Detroit Mercy.

So Denver, which only went Division I in 1999, represents all of that. The Pioneers as national champions would blow the doors off what people perceive lacrosse to be -- namely an Eastern seaboard-hugging, prep school-fed, elitist sport. Of the 47 players on the Pioneers' roster, just 15 hail from what would be considered traditional lacrosse bases; the rest count Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, California, Minnesota, Florida and Canada as home.

But is Denver the by-product of the growth of the game, or just the genius of one man? Bill Tierney won six national championships at Princeton before packing his whistle for the West. It's a fair question.

Tierney considers himself a pioneer, along with being the coach of the Pioneers. He took a professional and personal risk five years ago when he left Princeton. He did it in part because he needed a new challenge professionally, but he also did it knowing that if he succeeded, he would help the game he loved.

In the run-up to this Final Four, Tierney has spoken candidly and passionately about how he hopes his team's success is viewed -- not as the impossible dream but as a message to other schools that don't think lacrosse is worth the investment.

"The day I took the job at Denver, I tried to keep it not about me but about our players, our university, our administrators," Tierney said after beating Notre Dame in the semifinals. "To make it about everything we can be good at so that maybe others can believe in the game and make that step that Denver decided to make some years ago. Maybe this will influence some people."

There's no need to influence people in Maryland to play lacrosse. Kids there learn to string a stick about the same time they learn to walk. You'd be hard-pressed to find a roster anywhere in the country that doesn't include at least one player from the state. US Lacrosse headquarters are in Baltimore, and in 2004, Maryland deemed lacrosse the official state team sport (jousting is the official sport in general, but that is a story to tackle for another day).

Yet the last time the University of Maryland won a lacrosse national title, the Terrapins' current head coach, John Tillman, was 6 years old.

The drought is now at 40 years, and the Terps are 0-for-7 in attempts since that 1975 win.

Terps lax alums have made it abundantly clear just how much they'd love to see a new trophy on the College Park campus, but at the same time, no one wants these Terps to carry a 40-year-old albatross onto the field.

"When alums come back, they're like, 'Hey we're pulling for you. We want you guys to win, but we want you to win for you,'" Tillman said. "Like, 'We had our time. We know what it would mean for us, but more importantly, this is your moment, your time.'"

A Maryland title would be just as big for the game. It might not represent the change that Denver would, but it would be a much-needed dose of reinvigoration.

Lacrosse might be growing in leaps and bounds at a participatory level, but attendance at the Final Four, as the New York Times pointed out this week, has dropped for seven consecutive years. On Saturday, 29,123 filed into Lincoln Financial Field for the semifinals, the second-fewest since the semis were moved into NFL stadiums in 2003.

While Denver, with a fevered student fan base and its novelty appeal, attracted 2,570 fans per game this season, Maryland, with a lot more history, averaged only slightly more, at 2,916.

Bringing a trophy back to a state that long has loved the game could help rejuvenate interest locally, which could only help the sport nationally.

So the question for Monday might be who will win, Denver or Maryland -- one a great offensive team, the other a top defensive team?

The answer, though, is simple.

Lacrosse will be the winner no matter what.