by Andy Krauss, LACROSSE.COM contributor
It may not seem like it, but this season marks the 35th year of NCAA-sponsored women’s lacrosse. In that first season of 1982, the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) also crowned its last champion, while passing the torch to the NCAA.
UMass defeated Trenton State, 9-6 to capture the first-ever title. Today, Trenton State is still a power, but the school is known as The College of New Jersey and competes at the Division III level.
While much has changed for Trenton State, collegiate women’s lacrosse as a whole has undergone a landscape alteration that never would have seemed possible in 1982.
During the 2016 season, the sport will pass the 500-school mark for institutions sponsoring women’s lacrosse on the collegiate level. Of those schools, 111 play at the Division I level; 97 at Division II; 275 at Division III and 25 at NAIA. Just a decade ago, there were only 264 schools sponsoring NCAA women’s lacrosse.
So what are the factors that are responsible for this exponential growth? Alicia Groveston, head coach at Division II Grand Valley State and Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) President feels she knows the answers. “The growth of collegiate women’s lacrosse is really a testament to many different things,” said Groveston. “The first is the reach of former players. People who have played the sport and fallen in love with it have moved to non-traditional areas and gotten the sport rolling through youth leagues and club programs. As a direct result, to continue to service those players, more and more colleges are adding programs.”
“On top of that, you add how incredibly fun our sport is to play, and that it is relatively easy to pick up; you can see why our sport has become a home for players who have become burnt out playing other sports and are looking for a new challenge. Lacrosse is a combination of many other types of sports – hockey, soccer, basketball – which leads to a relatively easy transition for athletes between sports.”
Even more so than the men’s sport, women’s lacrosse successful migration south and west becomes more evident every year. The most obvious example has been Northwestern University’s dominance since re-establishing the sport at the varsity level in 2002. By 2005, the Evanston, Ill. school won its first Division I title and preceded to win six of the ensuing seven championships.
Looking southward, the University of Florida established a program in 2010. Within two years, the Gators were one overtime loss away from reaching the national championship game. Amanda O’Leary’s crew has reached the quarterfinals in four consecutive seasons.
Quinnipiac head coach Danie Caro gives great credence to the regional growth when discussing the overall expansion of collegiate lacrosse. “What was once regarded as a very regional niche sport now features top caliber programs on the west coast, the midwest, and the south,” said Caro. “We are truly a national sport and the current collegiate landscape is very conducive for future growth. A lot of credit for the growth in women’s and girl’s lacrosse programs can be attributed to the work of the IWLCA and US Lacrosse, whose leaders have been great ambassadors for the sport.”
The popularity of women’s lacrosse has clearly affected the growth of the sport steadily since 1982 and there is no reason to feel like it should slow down anytime soon. Sometimes you have to stop to glance at the numbers to truly appreciate how the hard work and dedication that everyone involved with women’s lacrosse has paid off.