Among its 19 men's sports, the NCAA has five showcase events. Football's Bowl Championship Series title game is a big deal, basketball's Final Four is similar in scale, hockey's Frozen Four is a blast and baseball's College World Series is hard to beat.
The Final Four for lacrosse probably is No. 5, just in front of wrestling. We seem to wrestle with lacrosse's value, and judge it like soccer: many people play it, but don't follow it.
I'm a baseball guy, but watching lacrosse is more fun. Nothing has been more interesting than Bill Tierney's University of Denver Pioneers, who this week are making their second trip to the Final Four in the past three years. Denver (14-4) plays top-seeded Syracuse (15-3) on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia after the first semifinal between Cornell (14-3) and Duke (14-5). The winners meet on Monday.
DU's maiden trip was a historical one in 2011, the first time any western school made it to the national semifinals, but DU flamed out at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, losing to eventual national champion Virginia 14-8. I was on that trip, and despite covering a DU loss, it was a fantastic experience. I learned how big of a deal lacrosse is back east and how cool the game can be.
Two years later, I was in front of my television Sunday, watching DU clang as many shots off posts as North Carolina had goals (six). Then, the Pioneers mounted a comeback that should have been front-page news. You want to see a total team victory? Get the video of that game. The reserve goalie (Jamie Faus) was, as we say in hockey, "standing on his head." The defensemen and short-stick defensive midfielders in front of him were regularly blocking shots and causing turnovers. The regular midfielders never forgot about the game plan, and the attackmen were completing a patient assault on the UNC cage with scripted plays and great shot selection.
Perhaps the most important guy — if there is one in this game — was midfielder/faceoff specialist Chase Carraro, who was dominating the draws to give the Pioneers continuous possession.
The Tar Heels led 6-1 after the first quarter and 9-4 at half, before losing 12-11 and falling to 0-2 against DU in the past two NCAA Tournaments. It was an extraordinary team victory that underlined why Tierney is a living legend and how important his program has become.
The Pioneers don't have football or baseball teams, but beyond their tradition-rich hockey program, lacrosse is who they are, and based on the NCAA food chain, their success is big news.