Conference Realignment's Fury Leading to Division I College Lacrosse Changes – USA Lacrosse Magazine

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Wednesday, July 21, 2021, won’t go down as the day that changed the Division I college lacrosse landscape, but a Houston Chronicle report of Texas and Oklahoma moving to the Southeastern Conference set off a cascade of conference movement that will continue for the foreseeable future.
Six months later, its effects are reverberating around the lacrosse world.
The Colonial Athletic Association announced Jan. 25 that it would add Hampton, Monmouth and Stony Brook as members. That move, and another by the Missouri Valley, brings the total of conferences participating in realignment — willfully or not — to 17.
The moves have touched off different emotions and reactions. Commissioners are accepting pitches from erstwhile institutions. Administrators are in search of soft-landing spots for teams in limbo. And some leagues are looking to take advantage and begin anew.
The Atlantic 10 is exploring options to add men’s lacrosse, sources have told USA Lacrosse Magazine.
When asked about his own league’s expansion prospects upon losing Monmouth to the CAA, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Rich Ensor acknowledged the challenge included dealing with the emergence of a potential Atlantic 10 sponsorship.
“We are also aware of the Atlantic 10 setting up their own league,” Ensor said.
Four full-fledged Atlantic 10 schools currently sponsor men’s lacrosse: Richmond, Saint Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure and UMass. The league would need two more teams to be eligible for an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. A spokesperson for Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade declined comment for this story.
According to a source at one institution, invitations have not been extended and a timeline hasn’t been finalized, but the plan would be to add two or three lacrosse-affiliate teams to the Atlantic 10. Three of the possible targets, all of which are affiliate members in their current leagues, include Hobart (Northeast Conference), Fairfield (CAA), and High Point (Southern Conference).
“At the present time, UMass is a valued member of the CAA conference,” CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said. “[UMass is an] affiliate member until such time until they tell us otherwise. We’ll continue to support them within our conference.”
The ramifications of these potential moves would continue the cascade into other lacrosse leagues. The NEC would lose two teams in Saint Joseph’s and Hobart, while facing the prospect of losing more teams to the MAAC. For the SoCon, which already saw Hampton leave for the CAA, losing Richmond and High Point would leave just Jacksonville, Mercer and VMI as members.
D’Antonio didn’t deny the possibility of adding more members to the CAA either, citing that he and his membership will “continue to assess the landscape and make decisions that are in the best interests in our conference going forward.”

“You turn over all the rocks and look at every possibility that leads to what you want to do.”

— Kevin White, JMU
The MAAC, which will have 10 members July 1, is comprised of small private schools throughout the Northeast. Its men’s lacrosse league would drop to five squads should St. Bonaventure depart. Ensor said the MAAC would be aggressive in realignment.
“We are actively looking at [getting to] 12,” Ensor said. “We just think it’s a good number to have in the current environment with the transformation in the governance at the NCAA level. We were underway even before the Monmouth decision happened with at least one school coming in, and maybe two now.
“We are looking with the board of directors (presidents of the schools) actively, and lacrosse is in that mix.”
Ensor would not say which schools the MAAC wants to add, but he ruled out Division II schools and schools to the west of its current footprint after a dalliance with Robert Morris in 2020.
“We’re trying to maybe look more into New England, frankly,” Ensor said. “We’re not opposed to looking south. Looking at that, it’s part of a branding thing and enrollment piece, meeting with alumni from those areas, if things stay the way they are — New England or the South. I don’t see us going west.”
The MAAC has historically looked to the NEC for replenishment — Marist and Rider joined in 1997 and Quinnipiac and Monmouth joined in 2013. This go around might include another dealing with depleted membership: the America East, which just lost Stony Brook and has Hartford transitioning to Division III. The Hawks men’s team has already withdrawn from America East competition in 2022 due to roster requirements.
If the MAAC searches New England, programs like Sacred Heart or Bryant could be palatable given their size and investment in their athletic programs, but both pose a long-term challenge of having football like Monmouth did. Southern options could include a school like Mount St. Mary’s.
In turn, the NEC would likely set its sights on Division II schools ready to transition, namely from the Northeast-10 Conference. It has done this in the past with Quinnipiac, Bryant and Merrimack. As recently as last May, NE-10 member New Haven was exploring Division I options. UNH has a women’s team but not a men’s squad.
Other NE-10 schools like Saint Anselm or Le Moyne, both of whom have men’s and women’s programs, have been rumored to explore D-I moves in the past. Le Moyne has twice looked at transitioning to Division I since 2008, but both times elected to stay in Division II.
The Dolphins’ women’s lacrosse team competed in the MAAC from 2002-07 and as a Division I independent before reclassifying with the rest of Le Moyne’s teams to Division II in 2011. They won their first NCAA championship in 2018.
On the men’s side, Le Moyne has built a Division II dynasty, winning six NCAA championships in 10 trips to the national final since 2004.
If the MAAC, which has never had public schools as full members before, looks to the America East, it would open other possibilities within the geographic parameters Ensor listed like UMBC or UMass Lowell. The America East did not return requests for comment for this story.
Three women’s lacrosse programs — James Madison, Cincinnati and Liberty — have different degrees of conference uncertainty. All three are moving because of their football programs, and all three are moving to leagues without lacrosse.
In the case of JMU, there’s urgency because the CAA has banned its teams from participating in postseason play, which has caused all but football and men’s soccer to move to the Sun Belt in July. That leaves a women’s lacrosse program that won a national title just four years ago without a home.
It’s up to Kevin White, James Madison’s associate athletic director for sport programs, to find the Dukes’ next conference in concert with coach Shelley Klaes and athletic director Jeff Bourne.
“It’s like dating,” White said. “Some people you might like, but they have to like you in return. You turn over all the rocks and look at every possibility that leads to what you want to do.”
An obvious landing spot for James Madison is the American Athletic Conference. It already is home to FBS-level affiliate members and nationally ranked programs like Florida and Vanderbilt, as well as in-state rival Old Dominion, with whom JMU will be moving most sports to the Sun Belt.
As for a timeline, the Dukes are intent on getting this done soon. The CAA has already banned their winter and spring sports from competing in postseason tournaments and come July 1 the majority of their athletic department will be in the Sun Belt.
“It’s a singular approach for us. It’s been about lacrosse,” White said. “I think we’re close.”
How close?
“I would envision before the semester is over making an announcement,” White said. “I feel like we’re that close.”
Other conference possibilities for James Madison could include joining the Big East or staying in the CAA as an affiliate member. While White and JMU seem intent on finding another home, D’Antonio did not rule out a return welcome to the CAA.
“That’s probably a situation that remains open,” D’Antonio said. “Until our membership situation is settled, we’re not going to be making future decisions as it relates to the possibility of institutions becoming affiliate members. That’s a situation that remains to be seen. I wouldn’t close any doors. I don’t want to provide any preconceived notion of what the future could hold.”
Bobby Weygand, AAC associate commissioner for sports administration and championships, declined comment though a spokesperson.
As for a full member, the American was ready to comment on Cincinnati, whose department is heading to the Big 12 on July 1, 2024. In a statement, the conference said:
“The bylaws also stipulate that the withdrawal would encompass all sports — though the conference may elect to accommodate a school if it wishes to keep one or more sports in the American, if it is to the benefit of the conference. None of those determinations have been made yet for any sports with our departing members.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, indications are Cincinnati wants to leave the American sooner than 2024, which would mean the lacrosse team might need a new home by next season.
If keeping lacrosse in the American is not an option, Cincinnati could land back in the Big East. The Bearcats entered the Big East in 2009 and became an affiliate member of the league in 2014 until the American sponsored women’s lacrosse starting in 2019. Cincinnati would also likely be welcomed in the MAC, which is focused in the Midwest and has a collection of FBS schools. Cincinnati declined to comment for this story.
Liberty will have the same decision to make, but on a slightly accelerated timeline. The Flames are set to join Conference USA in most sports July 1, 2023. No decision for their conference prospects has been determined either. Liberty’s field hockey team plays in the Big East.
“Liberty will be a member of ASUN Conference for women’s lacrosse in 2022 and 2023. We are currently exploring options for 2024 and beyond,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said.
If Liberty ultimately leaves the ASUN, that league would be down to five women’s lacrosse-playing members. In such a situation, one could expect an agreement with the Big South for one of its affiliate members to join and even numbers out so the ASUN can keep its automatic qualifier. The two leagues absorbed the Southern Conference’s teams when it disbanded after the 2021 season. The Big South now has 10 teams.
Lastly, should there be any leagues short on numbers, the two Mountain Pacific Sports Federation teams — San Diego State and UC Davis — remain free agents without access to an automatic bid.
Kacey Knobloch had 25 goals with 21 assists in 2021 for James Madison.
Expansion in Division I men’s lacrosse has slowed, and every program currently has a conference home. Even with potential changes, the number of automatic qualifiers would remain the same.
But rapid growth in Division I women’s lacrosse has aided many conferences looking to remain viable. In 2023, Clemson (ACC), Fairleigh Dickinson (NEC), Eastern Michigan (MAC) and Xavier (Big East) will join the Division I ranks. The following year, USF (AAC) comes on board, while Rhode Island (A-10) will be new in 2025.
The timing of USF’s addition sets up well for the American, as it will come in what could be Cincinnati’s final year in the league.
Commissioners and administrators have prioritized providing access points to championships. Just 10 years ago, only eight automatic bids and 19 teams competed in the NCAA tournament. Through coordinated efforts between conferences and expansion at dozens of schools, the tournament now has 15 bids and 29 participants.
Change, it seems, is the only constant. While most shifts in the college sports landscape will occur due to some combination of football, basketball, TV and streaming rights, they inevitably affect lacrosse and set into motion several more lacrosse-based moves. The sport’s stakeholders been creative in making the most of the realignment shuffle from a competition and sustainability standpoint.
As the sport continues to grow, conversations like these will continue.
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