Growing divide

While the lacrosse boom at the Division III level parallels that of the sport, Division I isn't keeping up

April 17, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Paul Cantabene swivels a chair in his Owings Mills office, converted space that used to be the Ravens' and Colts' headquarters.

Stan Ross text-messages his former players and plots a career change from his mother's home in Lutherville.

Cantabene and Ross were teammates at Loyola College in the early 1990s. They were assistants at Towson University when it reached the NCAA semifinals in 2001.

They had plenty of shared experiences during their respective love affairs with college lacrosse - until they became head coaches, one in a division that's booming, the other in a level that doesn't reflect the game's growth.

As the coach at Villa Julie, Cantabene is an advertisement for US Lacrosse, the national governing body that tracks and trumpets the game. He coaches in Division III, where the number of men's programs has doubled the past 25 years.

Ross was the third - and last - coach at Butler University in Indianapolis, where westward expansion in Division I took another hit with that program's termination two months ago.

"I figured it was a no-brainer," Ross said of taking the Butler job. "I wasn't given everything I needed, but they were moving forward. You put your heart and soul into something, then you have it ripped out from you. I'll find something else; my heart goes out to the kids who won't be able to play somewhere else."

One landing spot is Division III, which will expand to 145 teams next season. It had 70 in 1982, when Division I had 50 programs. The loss of Butler leaves the marquee division with 56. It is thriving compared with other men's sports in Division I. But Butler joined North Carolina State, New Hampshire and Michigan State as former Division I tournament teams that have dropped men's lacrosse.

The paradox in the men's game will be seen in the NCAA tournament at M&T Bank Stadium Memorial Day weekend.

A decade after it had an eight-team field, Division III will cap a 20-team tournament.

The Division I semifinal doubleheader also will draw a crowd, possibly the biggest ever for an NCAA championship event - despite the fact that of the 118 colleges that play major college football, only 12 sponsor men's lacrosse.

`It can be tough'

Two decades ago, 309 U.S. high schools sponsored boys lacrosse, with 17,551 participants. Two years ago, that number had risen to 1,334 schools, with nearly 60,000 boys playing.

Those figures, compiled by the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations, do not take into account the 1,000 or so athletes playing for Baltimore's private and parochial schools, including what might be the nation's best league, the A Conference of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Ross was forged in that crucible, as an All-Metro defenseman for Boys' Latin. He started for two years at Loyola College, then followed his father, Dan, into the coaching business, where he became part of the Division I numbers game.

Ross was an undergraduate assistant with the Greyhounds in 1996, helped Denver move up to Division I in 1997, coached the defense on Princeton's 1998 NCAA champions, then joined the Towson staff in 1999.

In June 2004, Ross took his first head coaching position, at Butler, a member of the Great Western Lacrosse League. Its membership stretches from Connecticut to the Rocky Mountains. On campus, Ross felt like he was back in Baltimore.

"It reminded me a lot of Loyola College," Ross said. "It was small, private, 4,500 students. Even the part of town, Butler-Tarkington, reminded me of Homeland. My wife and I started a family there; we were just starting to make friends.

"When I went to sign a new recruiting class last October, I asked the new athletic director, `Are we all on the same page?' He told me to keep doing what I was doing."

On Jan. 26, a Friday, Butler athletic director Barry Collier informed Ross that this would be the final season there for men's lacrosse.

"He told me at 2 p.m., the team at 3, and there was a press release out by 4," Ross said. "During the team meeting, guys were text-messaging their friends, looking for places to land."

Some transferred immediately, like Jeremy Sieverts to Maryland. Others declined to play, holding on to a season of eligibility. The remaining players, down to 14 with no goalies, decided to abandon this season.

Yesterday, Ross took a position as vice president for enrollment and recruiting with University Lacrosse, a Baltimore-based company that operates clinics and club teams for youth players, and aids their college search.

He knows that landscape all too well, as his coaching stops include Denver, Division I's only addition west of the Mississippi since the first NCAA tournament in 1971.

In a letter to US Lacrosse, Bobby Fong, the Butler president, cited finances as the reason for cutting the program. Butler started men's lacrosse in 1993 with the expectation that it would grow in the Midwest, Fong wrote, "so that travel would be less onerous and expensive."

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