When a college athletics conference introduces a new sport, it usually takes a while to get up to speed and compete on a national level. Not Big Ten women's lacrosse. It went from 0 to 60 in an instant.
With the two most successful programs in the history of college women's lacrosse — defending national champion Maryland and Northwestern — driving high expectations, the Big Ten ranks in the top two of Division I's 13 conferences before its first draw. Only Maryland's former home, the Atlantic Coast Conference, is comparable.
But the teams now in the Big Ten boast far more national championships than any other conference — 24, including 20 since the first NCAA tournament in 1982. Maryland has 12 national crowns, 11 in the NCAA. Between them, the No. 1 Terps and the No. 8 Wildcats have won 19 national championships, including nine of the last 10, but they haven't had a regular-season rivalry since the late '80s and early '90s.
It's fitting, then, that they will meet on the first day of conference competition, with the Terps headed to Evanston, Ill., on March 26.
The two haven't played during the regular season since 2007. In the Final Four, however, they've met four times in five years, including twice in the title game. Maryland won in 2010 and the Wildcats in 2011.
"I think it's exciting the first year to open the Big Ten with the Maryland-Northwestern matchup," said Maryland coach Cathy Reese, whose Terps lead the series 8-6. "It's something I think all lacrosse fans in general should be excited about. … It's great for the sport. It's great to open up Big Ten conference play this way and start off a rivalry that I think will continue on for many years to come."
Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a teammate of Reese's for one season at Maryland, is also looking forward to revitalizing the rivalry.
"Maryland plays an incredible style of lacrosse and I think we match up extremely well against each other," Amonte Hiller told the Big Ten Network, "and the fact that it is the first game ever for the Big Ten is a really cool thing for us. Obviously, being a Maryland alum, I'm really excited to have them in the conference and have the opportunity to play them in that first historic game."
In addition to the Terps and Wildcats, the conference includes No. 12 Penn State — which also has a storied past with five national titles — No. 10 Ohio State, Michigan and Rutgers .
Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan moved over from the American Lacrosse Conference with Northwestern, while Rutgers comes from the Big East.
After the departure of so many teams — including Johns Hopkins, which will play an indepedent schedule — the 12-year old ALC folded. At one time it rivaled the ACC for supremacy, but only Florida and Vanderbilt were left.
With no SEC lacrosse, those teams became affiliate members in the Big East, which in the past couple years lost Syracuse and Louisville to the ACC, Loyola Maryland to the Patriot League and Rutgers to the Big Ten.
Penn State coach Missy Doherty said having the Big Ten support women's lacrosse has a lot of advantages for its members.
The ALC "was one of the hardest conferences in the country, but it didn't have a great identity," Holmes said, "and to now have such strong teams a part of Big Ten lacrosse is a great thing from a growth standpoint, from a publicity standpoint. … It increases the identity of Penn State lacrosse, not to mention all the other schools in the Big Ten conference."
When the Big Ten announced it would sponsor women's and men's lacrosse in June 2013, it went all in, something that coaches in and out of the conference believe will keep the sport growing at a fast pace. They are thrilled that the Big Ten Network will broadcast women's lacrosse games this spring.
"Just the power of the Big Ten in general is undeniable and the fact that they're supporting women's lacrosse and men's lacrosse on such a large scale," Amonte Hiller said. "The TV network and all that goes into it, I think, is huge for our sport and I think it's really going to set the tone for our sport to take that next level."
The coaches hope that more television exposure will continue to fuel the fastest growing college sport for women. NCAA statistics reveal a 38.2 percent growth between 2008 and 2013 — more than twice the rate of the next fastest growing sport, golf.
That could entice other major conferences to add women's lacrosse. The PAC-12 already has five schools with women's lacrosse, but they now compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. The PAC-12 needs one more school — or an affiliate member — to support a women's lacrosse conference.
"This is where college lacrosse has always dreamed of being," said Navy coach Cindy Timchal, who is in her 33rd season as a college coach and won eight national championships in 16 years at Maryland.
Timchal started her career at Northwestern in 1982 when there were 39 Division I teams. Today, there are 107.
"I can remember being at the University of Maryland and finally adding both Duke and North Carolina and having a real conference in the ACC for women's lacrosse," Timchal said."That really defined our sport. Now, having one of the best conferences in the country in the Big Ten sponsoring a conference championship speaks volumes to the growth of women's lacrosse."
The Big Ten could also grow soon, with Johns Hopkins officials considering becoming an affiliate member, as they are in men's lacrosse.