Last weekend, the Stanford women’s lacrosse team headed to Philadelphia, Pa., where it played Maryland, Virginia and Penn, three giants of the lacrosse world. And while the Card’s trip east was an important gauntlet for the girls from the Farm, the sport of lacrosse inexorably headed west. In one week, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) has grown by two members, with San Diego State officially joining the MPSF on Friday and USC’s announcement that it will be starting Division I men’s and women’s lacrosse programs.
San Diego State’s women’s lacrosse program has been a club team since 2003, but the jump to Division I is a big move for the Aztecs. The program named former Stanford assistant Kylee White as its head coach. White helped guide the Card to three MPSF championships. Under her watch, Stanford became the first program west of the Mississippi River to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. San Diego State will become the eighth team to join the MPSF, and will play a full conference schedule starting in 2012.
Perhaps the most significant step in the westward expansion of lacrosse as a whole is USC lacrosse teams becoming Division I programs. New USC president C.L. Max Nikias announced the move last Monday.
“Pretty soon we are going to announce that we will introduce a women’s lacrosse team, Division I, at USC,” Nikias said to USC news source Annenberg TV News. “We are in the process of recruiting the coach for the team and then we will make the announcement.”
Stanford, Oregon and Cal are all in the MPSF, and USC is expected to join the conference as well.
Nikias also commented that the Trojans would add a Division I men’s lacrosse team in the next three to five years. Should the Trojans follow through with the D-I men’s lacrosse program, they would only be the third men’s Division I program west of the Mississippi River (the others are Air Force and the University of Denver), a huge step toward expanding the game in California.
According to USLacrosse.com, youth participation in the game has grown by 138 percent since 2001, and the number of juniors playing lacrosse is now over 300,000 strong, making lacrosse the fastest-growing sport in America. US Lacrosse also reports that there are 447 women’s college programs on either the club or varsity level, and more teams are beginning to spring up every year.
Part of this expansion is due to Title IX, which mandates that there must be an equal number of scholarships for both men’s and women’s athletes, but, as evidenced by the new programs at San Diego State and USC, the expansion of the game in California alone is already occurring at a rapid pace. Of the California schools that are currently in the MPSF, UC-Davis began a lacrosse program in 1997, followed by Cal in 1999, St. Mary’s in 2000 and Fresno State in 2008.
The lacrosse world seems ready to accept the West, and especially California, into the fold. The major lacrosse hotbeds historically have been in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New England, but as the game creeps west, the gap of talent between the East and West is closing, and both Stanford and Denver finished in the top 20 in last year’s final rankings.
Coaches at prestigious East Coast programs are also beginning to turn westward. After 11 seasons with George Mason, current Stanford head coach Amy Bokker left her spot in Fairfax, Va., in order to join the Cardinal. Similarly, new San Diego State head coach Kylee White left Loyola University in Maryland, which finished last season ranked 16th in the nation. To them and others, the lure of beginning a new program out west is too good to pass up.
While the economic pinch has put athletic programs everywhere in a bind, the growth of lacrosse shows no signs of stopping. The challenge is to find enough teams to play—Stanford had to drop a regular season series with defending national champion Maryland because of budget cuts for both schools.
Ironically, trips to the East Coast are critical in the growth of lacrosse.
“A weekend like [this past weekend] is huge for our team to prepare to be one of the best teams in the country,” Bokker said. “The games that we are playing this weekend give us a good sense of where we are and what we need to do to get back to the NCAA Tournament and take the next step when we are there.”
And while the Card must head east on the road to a lacrosse championship, it’s only a matter of time now before California lacrosse catches up. Soon, all lacrosse teams could be left with only one option: go west, young man (or woman).
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that women’s lacrosse head coach Amy Bokker had left George Mason University in Washington, D.C., in order to lead Stanford’s program. In fact, George Mason is located in Fairfax, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.