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Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala says he's sometime "sad" the Blue Jays are no longer independent.
Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala says he's sometime "sad" the Blue Jays are no longer independent. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

It's hard to say goodbye. Just ask Casey Ikeda, who will be part of the first Maryland men's lacrosse team to play in the Big Ten after 63 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I've only known the ACC," said Ikeda, a senior defenseman who hails from Berwyn, Pa. "So I'm very excited to play in the Big Ten. There are a lot of programs that are very talented, some schools that I looked at when I was younger. Penn State's a big family school for my family. So I'm very excited to play them. And I know the Big Ten is going to be a great conference to play in."

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Dave Pietramala, who helped Johns Hopkins win the 1987 NCAA championship as a player and is the team's current head coach, sounds just as wistful about the program's move from independent status to the Big Ten.

"Sometimes I'm sad. Well, maybe sad is not the right word," Pietramala said. "Sometimes I think of how much has changed on my watch. Yeah, we've been blessed to win two championships and play in two Final Fours and do some wonderful things, but we no longer have our independence. That happened on my watch."

This season marks the debut of the Big Ten in lacrosse. Anchored by traditional conference members Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, the league welcomes Maryland and Rutgers as full members and Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member.

The ACC is regarded as the ultimate power conference in lacrosse, but between Johns Hopkins and Maryland, the Big Ten boasts two programs that have captured 11 combined national championships.

ESPN lacrosse analyst Mark Dixon said the addition of a Power Five conference is significant for the sport.

"When you talk about the Big Ten, it's arguably the most notable conference in the country from top to bottom when we're talking about sports," said Dixon, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder. "It's big for the sport. You've got the ACC, which is the crème de la creme in college lacrosse, and now you have the Big Ten. And schools like Ohio State and Michigan are bridges to the West. I think that's just huge for the sport."

The conference's reach to the Midwest could be a huge benefit for the three East Coast schools. In addition to Johns Hopkins' contract with ESPNU to broadcast Blue Jays games, the Big Ten Network will air a Game of the Week every Sunday beginning on March 29. That allows Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Rutgers to extend their brand into the homes of potential recruits.

"We have some kids from the Midwest that are interested in Maryland knowing that their parents can see them play not only live, but on TV," Terps coach John Tillman said. "That's kind of exciting. And that's what they know, the Big Ten. They've always grown up with the Big Ten, and they're really comfortable with that. That's really exciting for them."

Denver coach Bill Tierney, whose program is a member of the Big East, said the Big Ten's potential impact is exciting.

"There could be nothing better for lacrosse than having more of these big athletic conferences have lacrosse as part of their conference play," he said. "You've already seen the Big Ten Network and the professional level of media. To be honest, our game has not been out there unless you're talking about Syracuse or the schools in Baltimore. It is what it is."

For Johns Hopkins and Maryland, joining the Big Ten offers two chances to qualify for the NCAA tournament — either by winning the league tournament and its automatic qualifier or earning an at-large berth.

"I think this is something that was necessary," said Pietramala, who has referred to participating in the Big Ten tournament as "a second bite of the apple." "I think it was something that was important to the future of our program and important to maintaining the status of Hopkins lacrosse. It is different, and it is a challenge."

The change, however, has cost the teams some traditional rivalries. The Blue Jays dropped annual games against Loyola Maryland, Albany, Villanova and Mount St. Mary's to accommodate Big Ten opponents.

The Terps surrendered contests against ACC foes Duke, Virginia, Syracuse and Notre Dame, but Tillman said he isn't concerned about a possible drop in the team's strength of schedule.

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"I think a lot of that is to be decided," he said. "How do the teams do and how do things play out, that's part of what we need to make sure we do, which is make sure every game we play is a good one. I feel like most of the teams that we're playing are accomplished or teams that are traditionally pretty strong. So we put ourselves in a position where it's challenging because we don't really have ones that we can give away. We don't have a whole lot of days off, and that's what concerns me more than anything else."

Time will tell whether the Big Ten enjoys as much success as the ACC does in lacrosse and whether that success will persuade other conference schools to sponsor Division I lacrosse.

But Dixon, the ESPN analyst, said the Big Ten's current endorsement of lacrosse is a positive sign that the conference is committed to growing the sport.

"I think the Big Ten is in a good place," he said. "They've got the resources, the schools that have the resources, and they want this to work. They want to become the premier conference in all of college lacrosse, and they've got the resources and some of the programs that can get that done."

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