Division I women's college lacrosse is in the middle of one of its biggest growth spurts in years, and several recent changes appear likely to spark even more expansion soon.
This spring, the NCAA tournament bracket expands to 26 teams, and Division I grows to 100 teams with eight new programs, including Southern California. And a shifting conference landscape that includes some of the biggest women's lacrosse powers could prompt more schools to add the sport.
Several Division I schools, including Maryland, recently decided to switch conferences in moves often driven by their football or basketball programs. However, when Maryland moves to the Big Ten Conference, the conference will have six women's lacrosse programs for the 2015 season — enough for an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament — which could lure more Big Ten schools to add what is already the fastest-growing women's college sport.
"I think we're just at the beginning of it," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said, "and I think it's going to continue to snowball. Look at the programs that are currenty adding. We've seen a lot in the Deep South, but look at the Big Ten, which is where we're headed, and you've got Michigan adding [next season]. What's going to happen when the Big Ten picks up women's lacrosse? Will that trigger other schools to want to talk about it?"
In addition to USC, this spring Marquette, Campbell, Coastal Carolina, Delaware State, Kennesaw State, Stetson and Winthrop begin play. Michigan and Colorado start in 2014. Furman, Mercer and Central Michigan will boost the Division I ranks to 105 teams by 2016.
In the conference shuffle, Loyola will move from the Big East to the Patriot League next season. The Big East will also lose Syracuse and Louisville to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Rutgers to the Big Ten and Georgetown and Villanova to a new conference.
In addition to the Big East falling apart, the American Lacrosse Conference could dwindle to just Florida and Vanderbilt. Johns Hopkins is departing in two years to become independent, and if the Big Ten starts a women's lacrosse conference, it would siphon off two-time defending national champion Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State to join Maryland, Michigan and Rutgers.
Not everyone is convinced all the changes are good, however, and they certainly come with growing pains. Reese and Duke coach Kerstin Kimel, both former Terps, have strong emotions about Maryland's departure from the ACC, although Reese said she hopes to hold on to traditional rivalries with Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.
There are also concerns about travel expenses for a team such as Maryland, which is farther away from its future Big Ten rivals than a lot of its ACC rivals.
Some teams, such as Loyola, ended up in weaker lacrosse conferences. While the Big East included four Top 20 teams and three tournament teams last season, the Patriot League included only one, Navy.
Still, even those coaches see the potential for growth beyond the Big Ten.
"Everyone has their own take on why these schools are moving, but if it offers more opportunities for student-athletes to play the game, that's great," Loyola coach Jen Adams said. "I think especially the big football schools are looking at Title IX and maintaining the [compliance] numbers, and women's lacrosse is typically that first sport to add. Adding schools like USC, I think, is just going to make more schools eager to jump on board."
The Trojans will play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation with Stanford, California and Oregon, but those are all Pacific-12 schools in other sports; with the addition of Colorado next season, they would need just one more program to be able to form a Pac-12 women's lacrosse conference with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"I certainly think it's at the beginning stages," USC coach Lindsey Munday said of all the changes, "and once the dust settles a little bit, it can be a great thing. I think the Big Ten has the ability very soon to create a conference, and the Pac-12 as well. If we, as an organization, come at it the right way, if these administrators at other schools look at the newer programs that are doing well, they can see real-life examples of it being able to work."
Those examples include Northwestern and Florida. In 11 seasons, Northwestern already has seven titles. Florida reached the final four last May in just its fourth varsity season.
Having the sport's two most successful programs, 11-time national champion Maryland and Northwestern in the same conference — and one with its own TV outlet, the Big Ten Network — also creates more enticement for other major conferences to consider the sport.
The arrival of Division I women's lacrosse in any geographic area also has a trickle-down affect on youth and high school girls lacrosse, which is growing even faster than the college game — 60 percent at the youth level and 48.2 percent on the high school level between 2006 and 2011, according to a US Lacrosse survey in 2011. NCAA statistics peg the college growth rate for the same period at 31.7 percent.
"I think the colleges are going to try to keep pace and say, 'If I'm going to add a sport, what do I want to add?' and we want that answer to be women's lacrosse," said Boston University coach Liz Robertshaw, president of the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association.
While many of the conference realignments are a year or two away, the expanded bracket — from 16 to 26 teams — will have immediate impact. Instead of 11 automatic qualifiers, there will 13 with newcomers Big South and Atlantic 10. At-large bids rise from eight to 13. Eight teams will be seeded, and the top six get byes. All automatic qualifiers go directly into the first round with no play-in games.
The extra at-large bids could benefit teams that seem stuck on the bubble, including Johns Hopkins.
Blue Jays coach Janine Tucker said she is "wildly excited" about the bracket expansion. Last season, Hopkins was ranked No. 16 in the final Inside Lacrosse media poll, rated eighth in strength of schedule and 15th in Rating Percentage Index, but with only eight at-large bids, it missed the 16-team field.
"The last couple years, we've been on that bubble," Tucker said. "We've got to do a better job of getting our butts off of the bubble and making things clear for any selection committee, but I think [bracket expansion is] perfectly timed. Our sport is growing so much that we have plenty of teams to warrant it. I think it will continue to help the growth of the game."