After two seasons as an independent, Johns Hopkins' women's lacrosse program will play in the Big Ten Conference as an affiliate member beginning in the spring of 2017.
The announcement, made Wednesday, returns the Blue Jays to conference play after they left the American Lacrosse Conference in 2014. Johns Hopkins officials announced the withdrawal from the ALC in 2012, and two years later, the ALC disbanded because four of its remaining six teams were headed to the new Big Ten women's lacrosse conference that also includes national champion Maryland.
"We already had a history with most of the schools in the Big Ten and we had a great history of competing against them, so that was kind of an easy transition," Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker said.
"And then if you want to be one of the big boys, you want to put yourself in a position to be playing against the best, and this Big Ten Conference with the really classy teams and programs and universities associated with it, we were just feeling very fortunate to be asked to join."
The Blue Jays, who finished 14-4 last season and qualified for the NCAA tournament, will join former ALC rivals Northwestern, Penn State (the inaugural Big Ten tournament champion), Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten. The two other teams from the ALC, Florida and Vanderbilt, moved into the Big East.
The Hopkins players didn't know about the move until Wednesday, but were excited for the chance to play top-notch teams and to compete a conference title that comes with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"This is the best conference in the nation, so we were pretty pumped," said midfielder CeCe Finney, a Roland Park graduate who just finished her freshman year.
Finney's classmate, midfielder Emily Kenul, said: "Having the opportunity to play Maryland, Northwestern and all these great teams, year in and year out, we're going to gain more and more experience, because at some point, we're going to have to beat them, anyway, if we want to win a national championship."
For the fist time in school history, the Johns Hopkins men's and women's lacrosse teams will play in the same conference. The men won the inaugural Big Ten conference tournament this spring. Before joining the Big Ten, the men's program always had been an independent.
Tucker said as soon as the men were invited to join the Big Ten, she wanted to see if the conference would be a good fit for her program as well.
"When the men joined," Tucker said, "I remember Big Ten commissioner [James A.] Delany saying at that press conference that this would be something to pursue on the women's side or something like that and I was like, 'Oh, that's awesome,' so then it came to fruition and we had the opportunity and we jumped on it."
One of the things the players, especially those who spent a year in the ALC, are most looking forward to is a chance to develop lasting rivalries. The most natural candidate for a fierce rivalry would be Maryland, which defeated the Blue Jays, 17-9, this spring in their first meeting in six years.
"Our men's team, their rival is Maryland, so once we're in the same conference that's going to be a big thing," said goalie Caroline Federico, an Archbishop Spalding graduate who will be a senior in 2017.
In 2015, Johns Hopkins played just two Big Ten teams during the regular season — Maryland and Rutgers. The Jays fell to Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"This year we got to see some teams we hadn't seen in a while, such as Maryland, and we got a taste of that," said midfielder Haley Schweizer, who also will be a senior in 2017.
"We were able to play with them, obviously wish it turned out a different way, but now having that confidence level going into that Big Ten Conference ... we can play with these teams. We have seen them when we were in a conference, we've seen them when we were out of a conference and now going into one of the nation's best conferences, we really want to get after it."
The chance to play in a conference tournament gives the Blue Jays two shots at the NCAA tournament — win the conference and earn an automatic bid or fall back on the possibility of an at-large bid into the 26-team field.
"We are thrilled to add the Johns Hopkins women's lacrosse program as a sport affiliate member and look forward to seven women's teams competing for the Big Ten championship beginning in 2017," Delany said in a news release.
"The Blue Jay men's lacrosse program just completed a successful first season of conference competition, part of an outstanding inaugural year of Big Ten lacrosse. We are excited to add another strong program from a premier institution with a passionate fan base to continue growing the sport of lacrosse both in the conference and on the national scene."
This spring, Johns Hopkins was one of only two independent women's programs in Division I along with third-year program Delaware State. Although the Blue Jays were in the ALC for 13 years, they had been an independent program before, from 1999 to 2001 after moving from Division III to Division I.
Tucker, who needs one more win for her 250th career victory, has guided the Blue Jays through their entire Division I history and taken them to the NCAA tournament five times. Her 249 career wins stand 19th among NCAA women's lacrosse coaches. She has 181 wins in 22 years in Division I.