After short-term pain, gain for lacrosse

May 01, 2002|By Mike Preston

DAVE COTTLE is part of the lacrosse tradition, having coached at Loyola, and now Maryland. He likes where the sport has been, and possibly where it's going.

It's the immediate future that might hurt.

Maryland, along with other teams like Duke and Loyola, have virtually been shoo-ins to make the 12-team NCAA Division I tournament field during the last decade. But heading into this weekend, when the 2002 field will be announced, Maryland, Duke and Loyola are on the bubble.

Or life support, in some cases.

They might get replaced by teams such as Albany and Manhattan, two of six teams that will receive automatic qualifying bids for winning conference championships.

This happens at a bad time, when lacrosse is as balanced at it's ever been. Even Syracuse and Princeton are not unbeatable. But instead of an extraordinary, competitive field, we're going to probably get some unappealing first-round games.

Maybe like a Georgetown vs. Fairfield. Or a Princeton against Stony Brook.

Oooh, just ugly.

But don't get too depressed, or do something crazy like drive your car 120 miles an hour in a construction zone (see Washington Wizards forward Kwame "Pedal to the Metal" Brown). This is a good move overall for a sport that needs a little blood transfusion. Automatic qualifiers are used in a lot of other NCAA sports, the most notable being men's Division I basketball. It had to happen in lacrosse, especially if the sport wanted to grow.

"This new idea has a better chance of increasing participation at the NCAA level, but it should have been coupled with bracket expansion this season," Cottle said. "Lacrosse is growing at every level except on the college level. We've been around 50 schools playing lacrosse for a long time with the number not going up or down. But this now gives the smaller schools exposure and a chance to build their programs. Will some of these teams, like a Providence, challenge Hopkins one day? Who knows? It's been tough to beat Hopkins at all in 80 years, but there is still an opportunity."

Let's call this a growing pain.

"The field is not going to be as strong as it should be; actually lousy, watered down," said Tony Seaman, coach at Towson University. "Now, if you are a fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth seed, you can play a warm-up game instead of having to sit out two weeks. But this has the potential to be good for lacrosse. Instead of having only four teams from the ACC, maybe we can pick up two more. There is no reason for an N.C. State or a Georgia Tech or Clemson not to play lacrosse, or to add possibly another Big East team."

This latest push is all about opportunity. For decades, lacrosse was, and still is to some degree, perceived as only a blue-blood sport, even with the development of programs at Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, Hofstra, Delaware, Notre Dame and Ohio State within the past 20 years.

But for schools that weren't ranked in the top 15 consistently, they usually dropped off the radar screen.

Not anymore.

A school like Fairfield (enrollment of 3,000) that plays in the Great Western Lacrosse League can play in the tournament. Stony Brook (17,904) of the American East Conference can get invited, so can Mount St. Mary's (1,400) or Albany (12,000) if they win their respective conference titles.

"If it allows six new teams to rise to the top, then we'll know it was a good thing," Seaman said. "It gives them the same exposure as some of the bigger schools."

If you're a traditionalist, it might hurt a little if Maryland or Cornell is left out. Maryland won national championships in 1973 and 1975 under Buddy Beardmore, and former Terps coach Dick Edell had his teams in the national championship games in 1995, 1997 and 1998. Cornell's name is synonymous with lacrosse, with coach Richie Moran winning titles in 1971, 1976 and 1977.

Yet, at the same time, that's what made lacrosse kind of boring. The shift in power never really occurred in the top six, where the constants the last decade or so were Princeton, Syracuse, Hopkins, Maryland, Virginia and Loyola. From 1992 until last year, Princeton won six titles and Syracuse four.

At least the automatic-qualifiers angle might make it a bit more interesting. Nothing will change overnight, but it will cut down on complacency. Coaches will have to recruit better, and search those cracks looking for players who may have slipped through. Certain teams might not be able to stockpile as many blue-chip players.

As for those coaches who are on the bubble this year, don't cry too much. The format changes next year. The field expands to 16 teams with only seven automatic qualifiers. But the bottom line doesn't. You win games in March and April, you play in May.

Just win baby. That has never changed.

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