Starting in spring 2010, Ivy League men’s and women’s lacrosse programs will take part in a four-team postseason tournament in order to decide which schools will receive automatic bids to the NCAA Division I Championship Tournament. The addition of the tournament will not affect the process by which the Ivy League champion is determined, but will instead provide an easier and fairer way through which the league’s best teams are given a shot at a national championship.
“We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase our very strong men’s and women’s lacrosse teams,” Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans said in a press release. “And we’re also pleased that we can avoid deciding our automatic bid recipient through a tiebreaker formula if we have regular-season ties, as often has been the case.”
The move to add a postseason Ivy tournament, which was initially conceived two years ago and has been in the planning stages ever since, comes at a time when Ivy lacrosse, especially on the women’s side, has seen increased success on the national stage and in the NCAA Tournament. In last season’s tournament, the University of Pennsylvania women’s team finished second to Northwestern, which won the national championship for the fourth straight year, while the Cornell men’s team advanced to the semifinals in 2007. According to Princeton men’s lacrosse head coach Bill Tierney, the ability of Ivy teams to compete and win in the tournament made a strong case for adopting a formal system of determining the Ivy League’s tournament qualifiers.
“It’s to highlight a sport that’s been very successful,” Tierney said. “If you look at national championships in team sports in the Ivy League, there aren’t that many sports that have been able to do what lacrosse has done. It’s a sport that’s been good to the Ivy League, and the league’s been good to it. It’s a win-win situation.”
Columbia women’s lacrosse head coach Kerri Whitaker agreed, also citing the fact that other conferences use postseason tournaments as an incentive toward adding an Ivy tournament.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted,” Whitaker said. “It’s exciting for the kids, for the program, it gives them a really quality competitive opportunity. It’s something that the league coaches have always wanted to be a part of.”
As the NCAA Tournament is currently set up, there are only 16 available slots for both the men and women. With the Ivy League’s automatic bid for the tournament being given to the league champion, this forces the remaining Ivy teams to rely on at-large bids. Last season on the men’s side, Cornell, which split the Ivy title with Brown, received the automatic bid by virtue of the Big Red’s head-to-head win against the Bears; despite the shared title, Brown did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Under the new rules, however, the automatic bid will now be given to the team that wins the postseason Ivy tournament. The hope is that such a tournament will not only provide for fairer competition for the automatic bid, but also increase the strength of schedule and Ratings Percentage Index for the teams taking part in the tournament, thus improving their chances of earning an at-large bid.
“Any quality win is going to strengthen your standing on a national basis,” Whitaker said. “I think that’s definitely helpful.”
Additionally, Whitaker believes that the existence of the tournament could provide for a more competitive regular season, as teams will have an extra chance to qualify for postseason play as opposed to being eliminated from contention early on in the season.
“I don’t think you can talk to an athlete who wouldn’t be excited about that opportunity,” she added. “If you look at your first four games and think, ‘We should come out of this 2-2 or 3-1,’ but the ball doesn’t bounce your way and you go 1-3, you still viably have a chance to get to that fourth spot [in the tournament]. I think it’s something that can certainly help motivate our players, and I think it’s something that has expanded appeal for recruits.”
The topic of a postseason tournament is one that, according to Tierney, was brought up with increasing frequency over the last decade or so, and is a debate that has taken place with other Ivy sports, most notably basketball, which gives its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to the regular-season Ivy champion. Lacrosse is the first Ivy team sport to introduce a postseason tournament to determine its NCAA Tournament representative, and the success or failure of the experiment could have an impact on whether or not the Ivy League will adopt the idea for other sports.
Regardless of its impact on Ivy League policy, Tierney, for one, is glad to see Ivy League lacrosse making a move that he believes will not only prove beneficial to programs, but also to student-athletes across the league.
“With all this, it’s another way for Ivy League student-athletes to have fun playing their sport,” Tierney said. “I think that’s the main facet of all this stuff. I think it’s going to be a phenomenal experience.”