History being made in this year's NCAA lacrosse Final Four
This group of teams shows that lacrosse is expanding in popularity across the nation.
FROM A HISTORICAL perspective, little is unusual about the lacrosse national semifinal matchup between the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University tomorrow at Lincoln Financial Field.
Since they first met in 1895, the Terps and Blue Jays have played more than 100 times, and the rivalry between the Maryland institutions is widely considered the greatest in collegiate lacrosse.
Still, something is unique about this Hopkins/Maryland meeting - part of this weekend' NCAA Division I Lacrosse Final Four - and it could be the most important event for lacrosse in decades.
Both schools are in the MidAtlantic region, but the fact that they represent the Big Ten at the Final Four in its inaugural season of lacrosse has huge implications for the sport.
The other semifinal, between Notre Dame and Denver, also shows how much lacrosse has grown in stature and how much more potential it still has.
The Fighting Irish, though competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, are from the Midwest, while Denver, a Big East member, comes from the western United States.
No matter which of the four teams wins the title, NCAA men's Division I lacrosse history will be made in Philadelphia on Monday.
The NCAA played its first Division I-sanctioned men's lacrosse championship in 1971. Since then, only nine schools have won the title - all based in the East, either geographically or via its conference.
"When the tournament pairings came out, the thing that struck me was the potential in this thing - for Notre Dame, Ohio State, Denver to potentially be in this situation that we are in," said Denver's Hall of Fame coach, Bill Tierney, who took over the Pioneers program in July 2009 after winning six NCAA titles in 22 years at Princeton. "It was going to be one of us vs. the old school, the blue-blood programs that have been around for hundreds of year."
Notre Dame and Denver are two original teams from the Great Western Lacrosse League that years ago and lobbied to get the western group an automatic qualifier.
On Memorial Day at the Linc, the national championship will go to either the first non-East Coast school (Notre Dame or Denver) or a school (Johns Hopkins or Maryland) whose conference is not based on the East Coast.
"Getting that [automatic bid] was huge for the game," Tierney said. "On Monday, there will be a chance for a new team to win and a chance for one of the regulars to win.
"That's good for the sport. It adds a bit of intrigue for those who are just rooting for lacrosse, instead any particular team."
Geography matters. It is important for lacrosse that it continues to grow its identity as more than only a Northeast and Mid-Atlantic sport.
Of the 69 Division I programs, only Denver, Marquette and Air Force are not in the Eastern time zone.
The Southern Conference is the only league with members farther south than North Carolina. With Air Force joining in 2016, this eight-team conference will be the second largest in Division I lacrosse, behind only the nine-team Patriot League
The Big Ten's lacrosse involvement is huge, because it opens a door for coverage that previously did not exist, via the Big Ten Network. It also adds name brands. Like Notre Dame, schools such as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are instantly recognized, no matter what sport is being discussed.
"A school like Michigan playing lacrosse takes away the excuses that others use," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "At some point or another, the people trying to hold off lacrosse are going to be unable to. We're excited to be part of being of motivating other schools [to play]."
Just as important for lacrosse, Corrigan said, is the announcement that Hampton (Va.) University intends to add lacrosse for 2016. Hampton will be the first historically black college or university to play lacrosse since Morgan State University in Baltimore folded its program in 1981.
"In Hampton, you are talking about the potential to be a leader in the whole change of what this sport looks like from a demographic standpoint, socioeconomic standpoint, to what we want to be as a sport for everyone," said Corrigan, whose sport is less than 2 percent black. "I think it's wonderful. I think it is about time. I hope Hampton does a great job and gets this thing rolling."
Cleveland State also is slated to start a program in 2016.
"I think it is really exciting," Tierney said. "When you start hearing new things - whether it is the Southern Conference, Hampton, Big Ten, Michigan, whatever it may be - when it is new to the game, it is good for growth."