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Growing divide

The Baltimore Sun

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."

Fong noted "the decision to drop men's lacrosse was not related to Title IX issues," but many colleges come into compliance with the federal mandate for equal opportunity by trimming men's sports, rather than adding them for women.

Butler, which also dropped men's swimming, added its own twist to a paradox. The chairman of the NCAA men's lacrosse committee, Jon Hind, was an associate athletic director at Butler when it dropped the sport.

Said Ross: "I'm over it now, but it can be tough, especially when you see the upsets from programs that weren't around just a short while ago."

Building a program

Cantabene can attest that more boys playing and a finite number of scholarships has created parity that has trickled down to Division III.

On Feb. 24, Johns Hopkins lost to Albany, and Villa Julie beat defending NCAA Division III champion Cortland State, which last May denied Salisbury a fourth straight national title.

The Sea Gulls have never lost a game in the Capital Athletic Conference. They joined that league in 1995, the same year Villa Julie started its program. The Mustangs, new to the CAC this year, took an unbeaten conference mark to Salisbury on Wednesday. They lost, 19-8, but few could have forecast them ever meeting.

Like Goucher before it and Hood after, Villa Julie seemingly went from no men on campus to dynamic men's teams in no time flat.

"The phrase I like to use is that we're a 13-year overnight success," said Brett Adams, the Villa Julie athletic director and men's basketball coach who oversees a two-campus operation.

Villa Julie went coed in 1972, became a four-year college in 1984 and reached another milestone in February 2005, when it paid $4.55 million to purchase the property that had served as the in-season base of the Baltimore Colts and Ravens.

The complex where players like Ray Lewis spent their working day has been transformed into classrooms and team rooms for Villa Julie athletes. Above it all sits new student housing and a view that was part of Cantabene's recruiting pitch to attackman Andy White in December 2004.

"He took me to the top of the hill," White said, "and told me, 'This is what you're going to get.' Given the lack of tradition here, I knew that there was some risk involved, but when Coach Cantabene laid out his plans for this place, he made a believer out of me."

Cantabene took a similar chance in 2004, when Villa Julie increased its commitment to the sport.

A second-team All-American for Loyola and a renowned faceoff specialist who served as an assistant coach at Johns Hopkins, Towson and Maryland, Cantabene has seen his Villa Julie roster grow from 17 players to 45.

"You don't have the same grasp over them that you have in Division I," Cantabene said. "You can't hold a scholarship over them, because they're paying their own way. Sometimes, if you ask too much of them, they'll go somewhere else.

"Because of how advanced recruiting has become in Division I, where kids are committing as sophomores, there are a lot more opportunities in Division III. Late bloomers can be very good Division III players."

The loss of roster spots in Division I means more and better players in Division III, a dynamic that includes White. He graduated from Loyola High in 2001, then played a season at Ohio State, a rival of Butler's in the GWLL. He transferred to Towson and then to Villa Julie.

Soon, Division III will merit a 24-team tournament. Next year's start-ups include two colleges in Michigan, and one apiece in Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Indiana. The Butler door closed, but a window will open at Tri-State University, in the northeast corner of the state.

While Division I colleges that field scholarship football teams hesitate to add any men's team that might tilt their gender equity compliance, many in Division III see men's lacrosse as a boon.

"We've fared much more successfully than other men's sports have in Division I," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of US Lacrosse. "In Division III, you have schools picking it up for economic reasons. They're looking for more diversity, more students from more ZIP codes around the country."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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