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Can the Georgia Bulldogs Create Successful Varsity Men's and Women's Lacrosse Programs?

You may not have noticed, but last weekend was kind of a big weekend for lacrosse. "Crooked Arrows," the first major motion picture about lacrosse, opened in select theaters, prior to a nationwide release on June 1. The NCAA Division I men’s tournament quarterfinals, featuring three teams from Maryland, one from North Carolina, and one from Virginia, took place this weekend and aired on ESPNU. The Georgia high school 4-A and 5-A state championships were decided, and the MCLA crowned an intercollegiate men’s club lacrosse national champion.

That last one matters most for present purposes, as the Bulldogs compete in the MCLA, so the outcome of that tournament is relevant to the question whether Georgia men’s lacrosse should become a varsity sport at the University. (Note: I mean no slight to the Georgia women’s club lacrosse team by focusing primarily upon the Red and Black men; Title IX considerations alone would dictate that it would be impractical even to consider adding men’s lacrosse as a varsity sport without also adding women’s lacrosse at the Division I level. Due to the greater coverage given to men’s lacrosse in the media, however, it is easier to compile information on the men’s side than on the women’s. I support adding both men’s and women’s lacrosse as varsity sports at the University of Georgia, but I am endeavoring to evaluate the extent to which the Bulldogs could be competitive at the Division I level, and information simply is more readily available for the guys than for the gals. No offense is intended.)

The aforementioned 2012 MCLA National Championships concluded in Greenville, S.C., this past Saturday, and the folks in charge of seeding the tournament obviously did a solid job; in 15 tourney games, only two upsets occurred, both in games decided by two or fewer goals between teams seeded within one spot of one another: No. 9 Michigan State beat No. 8 Colorado, 8-7, in the first round, and No. 2 Colorado State beat No. 1 Cal Poly, 7-5, in the finals. Otherwise, the bracket was all chalk.

Clearly, then, the folks who set up the MCLA tournament knew what they were doing, and that fact ought to give us pause, since only one SELC team, and only two teams Georgia faced, made the field, and neither of them advanced. Tenth-seeded Pitt, whom the Bulldogs tied, lost, 13-9, in the first round, and 14th-seeded SELC champion Virginia Tech, to whom the Red and Black lost, fell, 19-12, in its opening outing. Is Georgia’s 13-3-1 record as impressive as it looks, or is the SELC just not that good?

The league last received more than one MCLA tourney bid in 2010, and last received more than two in 2008. In the last six years, the SELC has produced only two single-digit seeds: No. 9 Georgia in 2008 and No. 7 Florida State in 2010. During that same six-season span, the conference has gone 3-9 in the first round of the MCLA National Championships and 0-3 in the second, failing to make the semifinals even once. Given that lackluster national showing at the club lacrosse level, do the Bulldogs really have a shot at making any noise at the varsity level?

Maybe so, actually. For one thing, there are half as many fish in the pond at the varsity level; whereas 213 schools have Division I or Division II men’s club lacrosse teams competing in the MCLA, only 107 colleges and universities field Division I or Division II NCAA varsity men’s lacrosse squads. While Mercer’s initial experience as an NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse program was less than promising---the Bears went 1-13 and surrendered eleven or more goals 13 times---Georgia already has put down a solid foundation upon which to build the Bulldog program. The Red and Black concluded their 2012 campaign ranked in the MCLA top 20 and led by the SELC coach of the year. The last seven seasons have seen the Classic City Canines capture six division titles and two conference championships, and there is active alumni support for a program that previously played toe-to-toe with the likes of Virginia, a team that nearly upset No. 4 seed Notre Dame in the NCAA Division I men’s tournament quarterfinals over the weekend . . . and it isn’t as though college club lacrosse teams in our area haven’t been able to win when playing above their weight class. (In fact, the Georgia club team nearly beat the Mercer varsity team in a scrimmage last fall.)

To that established past may be added a bright future for the nation’s fastest-growing team sport in the Peach State. Efforts currently are underway to add high school lacrosse in at least one of the few metropolitan Atlanta counties without it, and, as the most recent issue of Lacrosse Magazine reported, the Empire State of the South will send 16 boys’ and girls’ U11, U13, and U15 youth teams to the U.S. Lacrosse Southeast Regional Championships in Raleigh, N.C., on June 15, after Georgia sent just two squads to the tournament a year ago.

Those, though, are long-term considerations; what sort of headway might be made, and how quickly, in getting a varsity lacrosse program off the ground for an institution such as ours? If Greg McGarity’s former employer offers any reliable indication, progress may be swift: Florida’s women’s varsity lacrosse team advanced to the NCAA Division I tournament semifinals with a 15-2 win over Penn State last Saturday, in just the third year of the program’s existence, and the establishment of a Gator varsity lacrosse squad appears to have done no harm to the existing women’s club lacrosse team, which finished third in the country at the 2012 WCLA national tournament. In Ann Arbor, Michigan made national headlines by taking its existing club program to varsity status, and, although the Wolverines, like Mercer, struggled in their first year of NCAA Division I competition, the Maize and Blue were competitive, and it is expected that others will follow the Michiganders’ lead.

Given the Bulldogs’ established (if largely overlooked) tradition in the sport, the growing recruiting base provided by youth league and high school programs in the state, and the example of our SEC East rivals to the south, it appears clear that Georgia has the capacity to establish respectable NCAA Division I men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, whether by moving the existing club teams up in weight class or by adding varsity programs on top of what already exists. The sport has a solid future in the region; the only question is whether we in Bulldog Nation are willing to create an atmosphere within which that future might flourish in Athens. There seems to me to be no question of the wisdom of such a step, and I strongly suspect that most of those who feel differently simply have not had any exposure to the sport. With apologies to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, I can assure you that, when you see Southern lacrosse for the first time, you’ll understand at last why to go this way.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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