For the first time since 1975, neither Syracuse nor Johns Hopkins will take part in the NCAA Lacrosse Final Four. That number is stunning in how it showcases the consistency of both programs but also damning in how little college lacrosse has truly expanded in that time.
If you've read the site long enough you know my feelings on the growth of the sport. If it's ever going to grow up, college lacrosse needs to take a page out of it's football and basketball counterparts. Form more conferences, expand the membership and grow programs outside of the Northeast. Most of all, it needs teams other than Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Maryland and Virginia to win championships. And it needs them to do that consistently.
The folks over at Inside Lacrosse are debating the issue of whether or not a Hopkins & Cuse-less Final Four is good for the sport. The over-riding opinion seems to be "for the most part, yes." Of course, there are caveats. The truth is that is CAN be good for the sport. If this opens the door for Army or Notre Dame to make a run to the Final Four and grow their own programs, that's good news for the long-term viability of the sport.
However, what if Army goes to the finals and then disappears next year? What if they follow in the footsteps of past Final Four upstarts like Navy ('04), UMass ('06) or Delaware ('07). Championship weekend party crashers who turned into one-hit wonders. What good does that do the sport? None.
That's the problem. Short-term, it's not good for Hopkins or Syracuse to miss Championship Weekend because of the crowds and TV audiences they bring with them. Hardcore fans of both teams that would normally be out in droves for the Final Four will be staying home this year (though for JHU fans that means they'll still be in Baltimore). The short-term loss of their interest (and pocketbooks) needs to be offset somehow. It needs the assurance that the programs playing in their place are ascending from the 3rd and 2nd tier of the sport to prove they will become the next round of great lacrosse programs.
So far, save for teams like Duke and Cornell who were a part of the old-guard anyway, every single one of these contenders has turned into a pretender. Albany had an amazing season in 2007 but now sits at the bottom of the 1-A scrap heap. Ohio State made the tournament a few years ago, hasn't been heard from since. Delaware followed up it's Final Four visit by missing the tournament the next three years. Navy slowly but surely fell off since their '04 Finals appearance. UMass hasn't been to the tournament since their great run. Denver is still a few years away. Georgetown, Notre Dame, UMBC, Hofstra and others come and go from the top rankings and tournaments but never seem to make any critical impact where it matters most.
The truth is, if the usual suspects continue to dominate college lacrosse for the next 10-20 years, the sport will do just fine. Those fanbases are dug in, love to support their teams and the sport. If the sports wants to grow, it's not on Syracuse, Hopkins, Virginia, Princeton and the other elite programs. It's on the next level, the 2nd tier. They need to break through, even if only a couple of them. To grow this sport in spite of itself.