Men's lacrosse stuck on 12

NCAA holds line on postseason tourney

April 29, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The expansion of the Division I men's lacrosse tournament from 12 to 16 teams will not happen next year, and the idea could be put off indefinitely.

Three months after the NCAA's championship and competition cabinet recommended the addition of four more teams to the national tournament, the NCAA Board of Directors will approve the budget for the 2000-01 school year without considering the enlargement of the men's lacrosse postseason field.

Expanding the men's lacrosse brackets never made the list of priorities the board voted on at meetings that were scheduled to conclude in Indianapolis yesterday.

Instead, with its eyes on gender equity, the board was expected to expand postseason tournaments in women's lacrosse (from 12 teams to 16), water polo, ice hockey and golf. Men's ice hockey and soccer also most likely will have to wait at least another year before tournament brackets increase.

According to Tim Pavlechko, the NCAA assistant director of championships, the decisions boil down to numbers. Although women's athletics enjoyed sizable gains in the 1990s, this year 9,160 men were eligible to compete for NCAA-sponsored championships, compared to 8,437 women. Meanwhile, women account for the majority of undergraduate enrollment at 52.5 percent.

"By turning down men's lacrosse and men's ice hockey -- two of our money-making sports that would pay for their own expansion -- it's obvious this wasn't a money decision," Pavlechko said.

"Making money and covering expenses is not a reason for bracket expansion. This has to do with the overall championship program, and how that works in terms of equality for student-athletes. The NCAA wants to see both genders equally represented."

That did not exactly warm the hearts of men's lacrosse coaches and supporters, who thought the tournament might grow in 2001. But the championship cabinet's suggestion to expand was shelved by the Division I management council's budget subcommittee.

"The sport definitely needs [expansion]," UMBC coach Don Zimmerman said. "With the present format, there are some quality teams that are going to be left out. I'm disappointed that [expansion] has been killed for now."

The introduction of the automatic qualifier to the tournament field has sparked the urgency in lacrosse circles to expand. Until this year, 11 teams were chosen on an at-large basis, with only the winner from the Midwest guaranteed a bid. Notre Dame will represent the Midwest again.

But the 2000 playoffs will include champions from the Patriot League, America East Conference, the Ivy League and the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Association as automatic qualifiers.

That leaves only seven spots to be awarded on an at-large basis. It also potentially puts a future squeeze on independent powers such as Loyola, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Virginia, Maryland and Duke to qualify for the round of 12. And it reduces the clout of a worthy school that fails to win a conference title where an automatic bid is awarded.

In addition, once it reaches an acceptable power rating--projected for 2002 -- the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is expected to add another automatic bid to the postseason field, shrinking at-large bids to six schools under the present format. Loyola has been approached about joining that lacrosse league.

"When the automatic qualifier issue came up three or four years ago, coaches were told it was going to be good for the game. Now all of a sudden, the carpet has been pulled out from under you," Princeton coach Bill Tierney said. "Everyone knows [not expanding] is not for the good of the game. At some point, it's going to water down the tournament."

The stagnation in the growth of the men's game--an effect of Title IX, which compels schools to pursue gender equity -- also has not helped the men's expansion cause. Fifty-five Division I schools presently sponsor the sport, which is roughly where men's lacrosse stood a decade ago. Conversely, women's lacrosse is played at 69 Division I schools and continues to grow.

"There's no question that, with the money set aside for tournament expansion, the board of directors has set a 50-50 ratio [in overall men's and women's athletics participation] as a goal," said Rich Ensor, the commissioner of the MAAC and a member of the management council.

"In all fairness, why should men's sports be held back? We do have a political process creeping into it."

"How do you fight the idea that we should be equal?" added Joe Boylan, who, as Loyola's athletic director and the chairman of the NCAA lacrosse committee, supports expansion. "You can be targeted as anti-women, which is a tough thing to fight."

Debbie Yow, Maryland's athletic director and a member of the management council's budget subcommittee, said the root cause of the men's expansion dilemma is the automatic qualifier. By 2002, any conference with at least six members is scheduled to get an automatic lacrosse bid.

"It would have been more advantageous if we had achieved expansion of the field before the decision was made to add automatic qualifiers," Yow said. "Now, the championship field might not represent the best that the sport of men's lacrosse has to offer."

Pavlechko added that the discussion on expanding the postseason field could resume with the management council, as early as its July meetings. Then, a push to expand to 16 teams in 2002 could begin anew.

"I can't predict the future, but this is not a dead issue," he said.

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