The conference realignment that swept through college football has reached college lacrosse, and has generated optimism and concerns among those involved in the sport.
Those changes have already manifested for the upcoming 2014 season. For one, the NCAA tournament will grow to 18 teams because the number of automatic qualifiers has increased.
And at least one "super conference" has been created. Syracuse and Notre Dame have moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference, joining Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. All six are in the preseason Top 10.
Loyola and Denver, former Eastern College Athletic Conference schools, will debut in the Patriot League and Big East, respectively. Boston University will also play in the Patriot League for the first time this spring.
Hobart (formerly of the ECAC) and St. Joseph's (Colonial Athletic Association) have moved to the Northeast Conference, Monmouth and Quinnipiac (ECAC) will play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and Jacksonville (NEC) and VMI (NEC) have joined the Atlantic Sun.
The conference carousel is an inevitable outcome as universities followed the lead set by football and basketball programs courted by leagues offering financial benefits.
"It's a big business and I think that is not lost on athletic directors and presidents — whether to hire a certain coach or join a certain conference and what the impact is on that university," Maryland coach John Tillman said. "I think it's very real and it's something that a lot of ADs and presidents are currently trying to figure out. Are we in the right conference? Is this conference going in a direction that we feel is the most beneficial to our institution?"
Conference realignment is an indicator of lacrosse's growth and popularity, some say. A team outside of the Eastern time zone has reached the Final Four in each of the last four NCAA tournaments (Notre Dame in 2010 and 2012 and Denver in 2011 and 2013), and a pair of quarterfinals were played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis last May.
ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said the formation a Big Ten lacrosse league in 2015 — which will include Johns Hopkins, the Terps, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers — could spread the appeal of lacrosse to high school players outside of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.
"When you get Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan up and running and into the NCAA tournament every year and if one of them gets to championship weekend, that's really going to beef up the profile of the sport of lacrosse," said Dixon, a former midfielder for the Blue Jays. "And then you've got Hopkins and Maryland in there and they're traditional powers. They've been powerhouses for 40 years. Even though Maryland hasn't won a national championship since the mid-70s, they're still mentioned among the elite programs."
Matt Glaude, who manages the College Crosse blog, said the sport's popularity could convince more big-time athletic programs to jump into the pool.
"More ADs have lacrosse on their radars and they're going to try to get their programs into conferences that suit their programs well from a competition standpoint," he said. "So I don't think we're quite done yet. The elephant in the room is if a USC, if a Texas, if a Florida goes out and sponsors the game, they're going to want to end up in a conference with a path to the NCAA tournament, and those are market makers. When they make their market, there is going to be an inevitable shift that's going to trickle down to other programs."
There are additional worries. There is some speculation that the ACC and Big Ten might try to attract the top referees — who are currently contracted and given their assignments by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association — and sign them to contracts to officiate only their league contests.
With conference games usually taking up the latter portion of schedules and a general avoidance on mid-week contests in April, teams are forced to move non-conference opponents to the first half of the schedule, which means opening the season in early February or giving up traditional rivalries.
In 2015, Johns Hopkins' usual date with North Carolina in March will shift to February, and the Blue Jays and Loyola have yet to settle on a date for the 53rd installment of their series.
"I think what that's forcing a lot of people to do is play games later in January and earlier in February," Greyhounds coach Charley Toomey said. "The season is moving ahead and at a pace where I don't think any of us are comfortable."
The field of the NCAA tournament has been expanded from 16 to 18 teams, but with six strong programs in the ACC, ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said further expansion will be necessary in the immediate future.
"There are too many good lacrosse programs that — regardless of conference affiliation or not — can finish second or third with some great non-conference wins and with all of these other conferences popping up, they're getting in and you might be on the outside," he said. "So we may need to keep that in the back of our minds."
Glaude of College Crosse pointed out that a group of four conferences — including the ACC and Big Ten — is contemplating increasing its cost-of-attendance stipend for its athletes, which could give those schools an upper hand in recruiting.
"It's a little unclear right now whether that's going to be a game changer, but if I'm a high school athlete and I know I can get a quarter ride to Virginia and Virginia is going to pick up the tab a little bit on my books, that changes the game a little bit on the schools I'm going to consider attending," Glaude said.
And leagues left behind have shown their dissatisfaction at the defections. The CAA voted to ban Penn State — which will move to the Big Ten in lacrosse after this season — from the conference tournament. Maryland, which was next in the rotation to host the ACC tournament, was snubbed in favor of PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Conference realignment is not limited to this season. In addition to the Big Ten next year, Fairfield will leave the ECAC for the CAA, and Air Force is still searching for a new home.
So the lacrosse landscape will continue to change, but Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said the moves should benefit the schools.
"I actually think that teams are starting to find their right homes," he said. "I think the conference realignment will inevitably be good for our sport, and obviously, we're seeing it with bracket expansion and play-in games and all those things we've been talking about for a long time. They're beginning to come to fruition, and I think conference realignment has been a positive thing for our sport."