For women, automatic change?


When the 12-team field is announced tonight for the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse tournament, it likely won't look much different from the top of the latest Interscholastic Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association poll.

Next year's field, however, could look quite different.

Automatic qualifiers - six next year and as many as eight after that - could drastically change the tournament.

This year, there were two automatic qualifiers - No. 5 Loyola, the Colonial Athletic Association champion, and No. 9 Dartmouth, the Ivy League champ. Both likely would make the field even if they hadn't won their conference titles.

Next year, the Patriot League, America East, Atlantic 10, Big East, Metro Atlantic and Northeast conferences also will be eligible for NCAA-mandated automatic bids to the tournament.

The controversy arises because several traditional powers, including some of the Atlantic Coast Conference teams and independents such as Penn State, could end up staying home while weaker teams advance because their conferences have automatics bids.

The ACC does not have the six teams needed to qualify for an automatic bid, but it currently has all four teams ranked in the top seven. Unless the tournament expands to 16 teams - a decision that will be made later this year - one or two of those teams likely would not make the tournament.

"It doesn't have as much to do with the quality of play as it does with the number of teams in the conference," said Maryland coach Cindy Timchal, whose No. 1 Terrapins have won five straight titles.

"I would just like to see that the conferences that are granted automatic bids have demonstrated the level of support for women's lacrosse that a conference such as the ACC has."

Three of the conferences that may receive automatic bids next year have not had a team in the tournament. The ACC has had three teams in the final four the past two years, and Maryland or Virginia has won every title but one since 1991.

"I'm more in favor of it if we expand to 16 teams," said Loyola coach Diane Geppi-Aikens. "[Eight] is a lot of qualifiers if you look at the quality of teams. [Remaining a 12-team field] leaves a chance that one of the best teams in the country might not get in."

That will happen this year in Division III even though the field expanded to 16 teams. The New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference has three top teams -No. 2 Middlebury, No. 3 Amherst and No. 4 Williams - but only two can make the tournament.

Ten conference winners automatically qualify and five spots are reserved for independents or teams belonging to conferences that don't meet the automatic qualifier standard. That leaves one at-large bid, likely for Amherst or Williams.

A team with much to gain from Division I automatic qualifiers is UMBC, which has won the past two Northeast Conference titles.

Retrievers coach Monica Yeakel said she is excited about the opportunity for her team, but understands why the coaches of traditional powers have reservations.

"If I was one of those teams, I would probably be upset about it, too," Yeakel said, "but that's the thrill of it - that everyone has a chance. It gives us an opportunity to get to the next level and it's a faster way to get into the tournament than getting into the national rankings.

"I think it's going to help get programs to put a little bit more money into their teams knowing they have an opportunity to make it to the tournament."

NOTE: The tournament draws for Divisions I and III will be televised on HTS at 7 tonight.

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