In women's game, a Western swing

Northwestern testifies to the continental drift

College Lacrosse

April 22, 2005|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

When Aly Josephs opted to leave the East Coast to play college lacrosse at Northwestern, the Franklin graduate never imagined that within two years she would be playing for the No. 1 women's team in the country.

"One of the main reasons I came out here was that it was a young program and I knew I would have an opportunity to play and have an impact," Josephs said. "I thought maybe by my senior year, we would be one of the top programs. I never thought in the middle of my sophomore year we would be No. 1 and undefeated."

Until Northwestern, just north of Chicago, ascended to the top spot a month ago, no team west of the Appalachians had ever been ranked No. 1 in women's college lacrosse. That's not a huge surprise considering that, 10 years ago, there were no Division I programs west of the Appalachians.

Since 1995, the number of Division I teams has doubled from 40 to 80, according to NCAA statistics, with more than a quarter of those additions well west of the Mid-Atlantic epicenter of the game. Five are on the West Coast - Stanford, California-Berkeley, California-Davis, St. Mary's and first-year Oregon.

Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded educational institutions, including in their athletic programs, has played a role in that expansion, which will extend to Miami in 2007.

However, there is another prominent catalyst, said Kathy Zerrlaut, chair of the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse committee and an associate athletic director at UMBC.

"It's also a natural spreading of the game," Zerrlaut said. "At the Midwest schools, there may be some Title IX issues, but they've seen a grassroots interest. They have growing club programs and youth programs."

US Lacrosse statistics show growth in many nontraditional areas. Between 2001 and 2004, the Mountain region of Colorado and Utah grew faster than any other, experiencing a 169.1 percent increase in the number of lacrosse players for both sexes at all levels.

In a sport in which three programs - Maryland, Virginia and Princeton - have claimed every women's Division I national championship since 1991 and only nine programs have won titles during the 23-year history of the NCAA tournament, Northwestern has drawn the spotlight away from the East Coast for one of the few times in the sport's history.

"The East Coast has enjoyed being the lacrosse establishment for many years and I think a changing of the guard is on the horizon," said Stanford coach Michele Uhlfelder. "Northwestern, by maintaining its No. 1 status, has been out front waving the flag, but the warning shots were fired a long time ago."

Northwestern may have fired that first shot during its earlier incarnation in the 1980s, making five NCAA tournament appearances before the program was dropped in 1992, only to be resurrected 10 years later.

Last year, Vanderbilt was the talk of the NCAA semifinals, advancing further than any other team from west of the Appalachians ever had.

"The biggest breakthrough was Vanderbilt getting to the final four. Now, all the teams [farther west] have the confidence necessary to achieve that ... " said Maryland coach Cindy Timchal, who led Northwestern through its early years.

The Wildcats proved that. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a two-time Player of the Year at Maryland, guided them to the No. 1 ranking just four years after the program was resumed.

Still, the perennial East Coast powers have not felt major repercussions from the rising Western teams just yet.

For the most part, they face more competition from the younger teams in their own back yard. No. 2 Duke and No. 9 North Carolina are only 10 years old, No. 13 Syracuse is 8 and No. 11 Johns Hopkins moved up from Division III just six years ago.

Blue chip players aren't heading west in droves and the traditional powers don't have to make trips to Chicago, Denver or the West Coast yet, although some do.

The Western teams must still travel east to play the best competition. Three will be in Baltimore this weekend - Northwestern at Johns Hopkins tonight, Stanford at Loyola tomorrow and Notre Dame at Johns Hopkins on Sunday.

As the Western teams continue to develop, travel likely will grow more reciprocal.

"In five or six years, I think we're going to feel the need to go out to a Stanford or an Oregon. As those teams get better and better, they're going to want to play more games at home," said Julie Myers, coach of defending national champion Virginia.

The Western coaches built programs with players from many areas of the country. Some, however, such as Baltimore natives and former Maryland All-Americans Uhlfelder and Denver coach Cathy Nelson Reese, still look home for those willing to take a chance.

Two years ago, Jocelyn Paul opted for Berkeley over Cornell and George Mason. Now, a starter in her sophomore year, the Towson High graduate has never regretted that decision.

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