Past year has been a game-changer for men's lacrosse

Rick Sowell takes over a Navy team that missed the Patriot League tournament last season for the first time.
Rick Sowell takes over a Navy team that missed the Patriot League tournament last season for the first time. (Photo courtesy of Navy)

A sport in which shots fly at up to 105 mph, college lacrosse has developed a reputation for moving glacially on subjects such as installing a shot clock to quicken the pace of play and dealing with falling attendance during championship weekend.

But the past year has brought turbulence to the sport. From a heightened awareness of concussions and their debilitating impact to the transfers of several high-profile players, change has taken hold of the lacrosse landscape.


And on Tuesday, Boston University announced that its club-level men's program will bump up to Division I in 2014 and play in the America East Conference, which includes UMBC.

Three of the most significant changes involved the installation of 14 new coaches in Division I, Michigan's move up to Division I and the addition of Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference.


The offseason is a time when programs bid farewell to graduating seniors. But in 2011, 14 Division I teams also parted ways with their coaches, including Navy and Towson, which both had down years.

After a 4-9 finish, the Mids hired former Stony Brook coach Rick Sowell to replace Richie Meade, who led the Midshipmen to five Patriot League regular-season and tournament titles and seven NCAA tournament berths in 17 seasons. Towson, meanwhile, promoted associate head coach and defensive coordinator Shawn Nadelen to succeed Tony Seaman, whose 13-year run ended with a 3-10 record.

Bellarmine, Binghamton, Colgate, Holy Cross, Jacksonville, Marist, Robert Morris, Rutgers, Siena, Saint Joseph's, Stony Brook and Wagner also changed coaches.

For Virginia's Dom Starsia, who is entering his 30th season as a head coach, the changes are bittersweet.

"It's probably an inevitable sign in the sport of lacrosse," he said. "The increased visibility, the things we all wanted are now at our doorstep, and I think there's any number of people thinking, 'Hmm, I'm not sure I want that package now.' The increased media, the pressure to win now, the higher salaries and all of the accompanying expectations are kind of coming to our sport now at the same time.

"The fact that athletic directors want results, that's just the way it is. This is a results-driven business. It used to be more of a club atmosphere than it was a high-profile intercollegiate sport, but we've certainly moved in that direction. So I would say that it's been a little bit of both a blessing and a curse."

Mark Dixon, a former Johns Hopkins midfielder who is now an ESPN analyst, took a positive approach to the coaching moves.

"Ultimately, I think it is a good thing for the sport in that lacrosse is becoming more important," he said. "It could be negative in that athletic directors don't know what they're doing or don't recognize the sport and might jump the gun a little bit. But I think that remains to be seen."

Michigan moves up

For more than a decade, Michigan was a member of the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association, a club-level organization with moderately talented players in extremely competitive rivalries.

That changed in May when the institution announced that the team would switch to Division I for the 2012 season. It was the sort of all-in move expected by an athletic department eager to make a splash.

"We know what we can build here, and we have a long view of this," said coach John Paul, the man tasked with molding the program to compete with the likes of lacrosse juggernauts Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Virginia. "We're not expecting to tear the door off this thing in the first couple years. This is going to be a process for us, and we knew that going in. We have a lot of respect for what Division I lacrosse is, and we want to be very, very good at it. So we're realistically approaching that."


The Wolverines joined the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which features schools such as Loyola, Denver and Ohio State. But because Michigan's 2012 schedule includes just five of the league's seven members, Michigan is not permitted to participate in the season-ending conference tournament.

Paul acknowledged that the roster is filled with many club players. But Dixon said the Wolverines' entry into Division I will yield quick dividends.

"I think what this does is it gives credence to the sport in the Midwest," he said. "You've seen Ohio State build a pretty significant program, you've seen Notre Dame building that program, and of course out west, you've got Denver, which has been to a national semifinal. So I think as the sport continues to evolve, a place like Michigan -- and you've also got Marquette coming in -- I think it's huge for the sport."

ACC adds Syracuse

In September, Syracuse and Pittsburgh applied for membership in the ACC, further solidifying the league's reputation as a basketball haven.

But the move also had implications in lacrosse, where the Orange -- which has won 10 national championships -- will join Duke, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia in 2014. Adding those opponents to the schedule won't be a stretch for Syracuse, which already meets Duke and Virginia in the regular season.

"For our sport, it's not a big change," Orange coach John Desko said. "We already play Virginia, and we already play Duke. We scrimmage Maryland. So it's turning Maryland into a game and getting North Carolina onto the schedule. The goal for any team is to try to get to the NCAAs. To do that, one of the criteria is strength of schedule, your [Rating Percentage Index] and so on. All the teams made the playoffs last year. Virginia won it, Duke won the year before and we won it the previous two years. That automatically makes for good rankings and good points toward that criteria for the playoffs."

The addition of Syracuse figures to make what many perceive to be the toughest conference in lacrosse even more formidable and could give the league five of nine at-large berths in the NCAA tournament.

ESPN analyst and former Orange midfielder Paul Carcaterra said the university secured its long-term future.

"It made all the sense in the world, in terms of the long-term picture, to be involved in a conference like the Atlantic Coast Conference," he said. "It would just benefit not only the lacrosse program but all of their athletics as a whole. With the unrest in other conferences and realignment, I think it was important for Syracuse to make a long-term commitment to a conference that they knew would be around for a while."


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