SYRACUSE — Way up at the top of the Carrier Dome, a stream of national title banners serves as a reminder of the rich lacrosse tradition here. After long, cold winters in Central New York, the Syracuse Orange would win game after game, and a new banner would eventually rise.
But it’s been a while: A program with a record 22 straight Final Four appearances from 1983 to 2004 and 10 national titles hasn’t claimed the championship in a decade.
Syracuse is not alone. The last Orange championship in 2009 marked the end of an era for the Big Five powers of men’s college lacrosse: from 1978 until then, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, North Carolina and Virginia won every N.C.A.A. title; since then, they have won just two.
For decades, that handful of schools had a lock on the best recruits, many of whom grew up in the lacrosse hotbeds of New York State, Ontario and the regions surrounding Philadelphia and Baltimore. Native Americans from the Upstate Iroquois tribes who popularized the indigenous game once headed straight for Syracuse. But as it expanded far beyond its Mid-Atlantic base, the balance of power has shifted in college lacrosse, which remains the marquee version of the sport, outshining the pro game.
Four first-time champions have been crowned this decade — Duke, Loyola (Maryland), Denver and Yale — and top-ranked Penn State could become the fifth if it wins the N.C.A.A. tournament that begins Wednesday. The Nittany Lions have never won a tournament game before, and play in a lacrosse conference, the Big Ten, that didn’t even exist until four years ago.
“When I played, the best schools just reloaded,” said Casey Powell, a four-time Syracuse All-American and lacrosse evangelist who moved to Chicago last year to spread the game there. “Now there’s so many more players, where Johns Hopkins and Syracuse are still getting their bunch, but other schools can too. Syracuse’s exposure revolutionized the game and created a new era of lacrosse.”
Coaches, analysts and former players say parity has come primarily from the youth talent boom, as players from outside the traditional hotbeds look beyond the traditional powers. The sport was once rarely on TV and was played mostly in the East. Games are everywhere now: played by amateurs and professionals across the country and, increasingly, the world, and broadcast on TV and online, exposing the game to new audiences.
Lacrosse has been the fastest-growing U.S. team sport at the high school level for at least the past two decades, according to U.S. Lacrosse. The number of high school players doubled from 162,021 in 2006 to 324,689 in 2017. Players from California, Florida and the Midwest have created a more level playing field for schools like Denver, which became the first men’s Division I champion west of the Mississippi.
Denver Coach Bill Tierney, who won six national titles at Princeton, understands that other athletic departments may not be willing to pay for a burgeoning travel budget, a reality for a program with only two Division I competitors in the same time zone. He thinks his Pioneers’ title in 2015, coming relatively soon after the program launched in 1999, makes for a strong pitch: If Denver won quickly, why can’t another new program?
“In lacrosse, you can be like us and win a national championship as a mid-major,” Tierney said. “That’s not happening in football or basketball. We’re seeing more kids on other rosters from Colorado, and more of ours are from the Northeast. It’s like two trains passing in the night.”
Western athletic departments are considering converting club teams to intercollegiate squads, the way Utah got its start. David Neeleman, the JetBlue founder whose son plays on the team, donated the money needed to take Utah from a club team to Division I.
Because Neeleman attended the school as an undergraduate, because of his love for lacrosse, and because he wanted to help the game shift westward, he gave the Utes the financial boost needed to support a team. Coach Brian Holman said travel isn’t easy — players log homework and tutor sessions on long flights — but Utah won five games in its inaugural season this year. They expect more schools to join them.
“Part of why we came out here was based on that assumption,” said Holman, a former North Carolina assistant.
Meanwhile, the University of Jacksonville’s upstart program is the only men’s Division I team in Florida. The Dolphins are coached by John Galloway, a 30-year-old two-time national champion at Syracuse who played on its last title team. Now, he’s part of the wave that’s made it harder for a school like Syracuse dominate.
While the men’s game has swelled from 56 Division I teams in 2008 to 72 today, the women’s game has far outpaced it. Including six teams in the Pac-12 Conference, there are now 116 women’s Division I squads. Florida, Vanderbilt and Stanford have only women’s programs. Last year, Maryland, winner of three of the last five titles, was left out of the final as first-time champion James Madison beat Boston College, which was also vying for its first title.
Parity is approaching as women’s lacrosse marches westward. Take Michigan, where it became as a varsity sport in 2014. Led by Coach Hannah Nielsen, a four-time player of the year winner, the Wolverines are a Top 10 team this year, and made their first-ever N.C.A.A. tournament this week.
“There’s nothing better than the spread of the wealth in the college game,” Nielsen said. “Anybody can beat anybody. That never used to be the case. It makes the sport more fun to watch.”
Michigan is an anomaly in the men’s game: a Midwestern football power that is a newcomer to men’s lacrosse. That is due in part to Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating gender equity in higher education, including college sports. Vast football squads, without any female equivalent, must be balanced with several women’s teams; creating a new men’s team only makes the math more difficult.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that large donations would bolster the creation of new teams, and non-football schools are more likely to add men’s lacrosse than schools with football. For now, he says he realizes the best players still must consider going East to play collegiately. Aside from Utah, Denver and Air Force, no other Western programs have Division I men’s lacrosse.
This year, Syracuse again made the N.C.A.A. tournament, but as one of the last at-large teams in. Johns Hopkins and Maryland, another perennial contender, also barely made it in, while blue-chippers North Carolina and Cornell didn’t.
“There’s been a drought here,” said John Desko, in his 21st season as head coach at Syracuse. “I’m a little disappointed with it. But the last couple of years, with our recruiting, playing some younger players last year, we’ve made some strides. Anybody can win.”
Syracuse, which last made the men’s final in 2013, continues to draw the most fans in the country. But the sport’s exploding talent pool has made dozens of schools competitive. And what’s good for lacrosse has made life difficult for its once-dominant powers.
“With this drought, little kids don’t look up to Syracuse like I looked up to Syracuse,” said Paul Carcaterra, an ESPN college lacrosse analyst who helped lead the Orange to the 1995 national title. “One Final Four in 10 years is probably a hard thing to swallow for fans in Central New York. It’s no longer Syracuse, Johns Hopkins or bust.”
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