The NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championship will be played at Rentschler Field, yet the school that occupies the stadium the most isn’t even in position to be a competitor in the tournament leading up.
UConn has a men’s club lacrosse program, but in a region and state rich with lacrosse talent, the state’s flagship university remains without a Division I team in the rapidly growing sport.
“Having been in the Northeast now for not quite two years, I don’t think there’s any question that understanding that sport a little bit, understanding the Northeastern footprint that we reside in, there’s a ton of athletes from a lacrosse standpoint that come out of our area and not just a ton of Division I athletes, but some of the best Division I student-athletes are coming out of the New England/Northeast footprint and specifically Connecticut,” UConn athletic director David Benedict said.
The push for men’s lacrosse — the school has a Division I women’s team — at UConn got a recent boost from the school’s biggest donor. Peter Werth, who recently donated $22.5 million to support student innovation and entrepreneurship, made the suggestion at the press conference in which the donation was announced.
“And actually for our AD, I think, we got, somebody ought to go down to Fairfield County and get some of these very rich people and have them come up with about $10 or $15 million to get a men’s lacrosse program in here,” he said at the event. “...Because I guarantee you if you get that going, within three years you’ll have a national championship.”
Connecticut produces talent that goes on to some of the top collegiate lacrosse programs in the country. Defending national champion Maryland was led last year by midfielder Connor Kelly of Easton and Avon Old Farms. As a junior, Kelly was a first-team All-American. Darien also routinely is one of the top high school programs in the nation.
“It makes a lot of sense for people to ask that question to wonder why we currently don’t sponsor it and if there would be a future plan to compete in men’s lacrosse at the Division I level,” Benedict said. “I think all those things are very rational to be thinking and discussing. At the end of the day, most things can be taken care of with time and money. If we have the time and the money, we could probably find our way to a place where we were competing in Division I lacrosse.”
While Benedict is unsure of the sport being added at UConn for men, Werth’s comments were noticed by coaches around the state.
“I did hear about it,” said Cheshire High coach Rich Pulisciano, whose Rams were ranked ninth in the state last year by MaxPreps. “I think it would be great and could be just as big as it is at UMass or anywhere else.”
The UConn women’s program program plays in the Big East and is set to become one of the first members of the sport being added to the American Athletic Conference in 2018-19.
“They have a pretty competitive women’s program,” said Glastonbury High boys lacrosse coach Scott Hinchey, whose program was ranked No. 5. “I’ve seen them play, but if they had a men’s program … you give them a couple years in recruiting, a good coach and infrastructure they could be a very competitive lacrosse program in a very short period of time. It’s the one thing they’re lacking, in my opinion.”
The UConn men’s club team is a member of the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA), which has two divisions and 200 teams. UConn competes in the Division I of the Pioneer Collegiate Lacrosse League (PCLL), winning the league title in 2015.
“I think we have great lacrosse here now, but I think playing at that level would be great for the school and the state, absolutely,” UConn club lacrosse coach Marc Paolini said. “I think there would be a lot of support for it.”
Support is great, but UConn has other issues to consider. For example, its general student body is pretty much split down the middle, 50-50, Benedict said. It may fluctuate from year to year, but for the most part the student body is 50 percent male and 50 percent female. And it must stay in line with those numbers athletically, too.
“That’s where the equity is built off of,” he said. “When you look at the number of opportunities and the amount of financial aid you distribute within athletics, it has to be representative of that, so by adding a women’s or men’s sport right now would throw that equation off, and that’s what you have to be able to address.
“But can you do it? Yes it’s possible to do it. Would there potentially be equity or Title IX issues? Yes there could potentially be those types of things. Right now based on our sponsorship of the programs at UConn, we could not add another men’s or women’s team without adding a similar program of the opposite gender. So in this case, if you’re talking about adding men’s lacrosse program, you would need to add a similar program to match up with it on the women’s side, so yes it can be done. What it comes down to is money and being able to afford to do that. So you have that piece, and you have the general funding piece we would need to address. The state isn’t necessarily increasing their support of UConn right now, so it certainly couldn’t come from a reliance on the university. It would have to come externally.”
It does make sense to add the sport, Benedict said. It’s just beyond his control.
“Why would you be opposed to start a program you could be competitive in at that level? That’s what we wake up every day and try to do,” he said. “Obviously, you’ve got challenges and opportunities to develop your student-athletes academically and socially, but we’re in athletics to compete and to not have a program or not be sponsoring a program in which you really think you can be competitive at that level, yes, it makes a lot of sense. It is disappointing to see a lot of those kids going other places and helping those programs compete at a very high level and us not being able to take advantage.”