The "noughties" (2000-2009) has been the most dramatic decade in the history of men's college lacrosse. It has been full of highlights (and some lowlights): the first NCAA championships held in professional stadiums, record-breaking crowds, two undefeated national champions (Johns Hopkins in '05 and Virginia in '06), the expansion to the south and west, the Duke rape scandal. Decades of slow growth ended at the turn of the new century and exploded rapidly.
Why? Various reasons, but the most influential yet infrequently recognized one was the establishment of the automatic qualifier. It immediately gave lesser-known teams the chance to play on the big stage. Before the AQ, lacrosse's national championship was like the BCS on steroids, pitting the same teams in the tournament every year while prohibiting the lesser-known schools from even having a seat at the table.
Throughout the '90s, lacrosse was plagued by redundancy. How can a sport be considered mainstream or expand its fan base when the same two teams win the national championship 80 percent of the time? In the '90s, Princeton won five, Syracuse three and North Carolina and Virginia each one. (If you continue into the early part of the 2000s, the Orange and the Tigers won 12 of 15 national championships.)
Playing with only 12 teams in the tournament allowed the top four seeds to have to win only one game to advance to the national semifinals. As a result, if a high school recruit wanted to play for a school that had the chance to compete for a national championship, he had to go to one of the top five or six programs, even if this meant wallowing on the bench for four years.
How is this comparable to the BCS? The biggest complaint right now with college football and the BCS is the fact that undefeated teams from "lesser" conferences don't have the chance to compete in the national championship. However, these teams do get to play in major bowl games, collect millions of dollars and play in front of 80,000-plus fans.
There was no such concession in the 1990s for the Boise States or TCUs of the lacrosse world. In 1996, the Bucknell Bison went undefeated, won the Patriot League and did not even make the NCAA tournament. They were not given a chance to play in a postseason of any type. Army, a team Bucknell beat by four goals during the regular season, made the tournament ahead of the Bison. It was a defining moment for the sport because it was the first time people really began to question the fairness of the selection process.
Finally, in 2003, lacrosse saw its first automatic qualifiers make the NCAA tournament as Mount St. Mary's, Army, Ohio State and Hofstra all entered the tournament based on winning their respective leagues. None of the teams advanced to the second round, but they had finally made it to the big stage, and their players were given the opportunity to compete in a playoff environment.
Since the first year of the AQ, several teams have made the tournament for the first time or first in a long while, including Delaware, Quinnipiac, Albany, Canisius and UMBC. At first, these teams were frequently blown out in first-round games, but this has started to change. In 2007, Delaware defeated UVa and UMBC defeated Maryland to set up the first matchup between AQs in the quarterfinals. Delaware would advance to face Hopkins in the semifinals. Ten years earlier, Delaware probably would not have been invited to the playoffs, let alone make it to the semifinals.
In the end, most of the highly touted recruits are still going to go to the top schools. But the new trend is that the players one notch below are no longer content with riding the bench with small scholarships at places like Syracuse, Virginia or Johns Hopkins. Instead, they are going to places like UMass, Cornell or Notre Dame.
This is a great development for the sport, similar to when the NCAA lowered the maximum number of scholarships in college football from 120 to 85 to spread those extra 45 players to other college football programs. Top lacrosse programs can no longer "stockpile" talent. The chance now to advance deep into the playoffs from a greater number of schools is higher than it ever has been.
UMass made it to the NCAA final in 2006, Notre Dame is consistently in the NCAA quarterfinals, and Cornell has been in the semifinals two of the past three years and was a fluke play away from winning the national championship in 2009 after a 21-year championship drought.
The automatic qualifier has opened the door to the NCAA men's lacrosse tournament the way that the wild card did for Major League Baseball and the expansion from 32 to 64 teams did for college basketball. More teams have the chance to make it to the Big Dance, there is greater depth and parity in college lacrosse, and the sport has spread faster than in any other decade.
Opportunity breeds more opportunity. The simple step of opening one door has opened many more.
For more on college lacrosse, check out Inside Lacrosse.