Blogs and Commentary

posted 08.27.2014 at 11.14 a.m. by Jac Coyne

Morning Jac: The Dominican Regression

There is always a period of handwringing when an NCAA program folds.

The collapse of a varsity program provides a perception of instability. With lacrosse still trying to find its spot in the greater landscape of American sports, the slightest whisper of volatility can create uneasiness among the various stakeholders, as we've seen with the annual hysteria in the wake of declining championship weekend attendance figures.

In reality, just like the attendance numbers, the sport itself has little to do with a program going dark. It typically boils down to an institutional failure – starting with the school's administration and moving its way down through the athletic director and, to a far lesser degree, the coach. The refusal, or more often the inability, of a school to provide the adequate resources to sustain a program is the root of lacrosse teams being euthanized.

In the case of Dominican (Calif.) University's recent decision to downgrade its varsity outfit and join a collegiate club league, the determining factors in the outcome appear to be different.

While perhaps not at the level of some of the well-funded and supported programs in NCAA Division II, Dominican obviously had enough resources in place to be successful. The 31-man roster was stacked with West Coast prep talent that undoubtedly had other NCAA opportunities, but chose to attend the San Rafael, Calif., school, located a half-hour north of San Francisco. Much of that has to do with the efforts of former head coach Ned Webster (now the head coach at the Cal-Berkeley club team) and his staff, but the institution clearly had a draw.

More telling, Webster had built the team into a contender. A serious contender. The Penguins were ranked regionally in the South last year and, had just one 'Eastern Establishment' program – regardless of the region – made the trip to the Bay Area this spring, Dominican might have had the juice to make the four-team South region bracket. The Penguins handled Queens, which eventually went on to get the final berth, on the road in early March, but with just 10 games against D-II opposition, Dominican didn't have the schedule weight necessary to stay in the mix.

But geography can be a bear.

In 2013, Chestnut Hill made the trip to California to play Dominican and its travel partner, Notre Dame de Namur (located south of San Francisco in Belmont). In 2012, both NYIT and St. Michael's made the trek and in '11 it was Adelphi and Rollins. The skyrocketing costs of airfare was certainly prohibitive for East Coast teams to make that commitment for a pair of games, and the growing potential that the constantly-improving Penguins, who weren't hamstrung by weather issues, could deal a visitor a debilitating early-season loss likely scared off potential clients.

The decision by Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association administrators to use the nuclear option leading into the '13 campaign didn't help the quest to lure eastern teams out of their lair. When the tournament expanded and the regions condensed from three to two, the western teams were originally slotted in the new North, but the WILA schools threatened to pull the plug on their affiliation with Division II if they were not placed in the South. It was a decision that was based on survival (budget-wise, playing South region teams was seen as more accessible), but it created animus within the division. Not one Division II team east of the Mississippi visited a WILA program in '14.

Locale, combined with NDNU's cart-before-the-horse decision to forgo its membership with the WILA in order to focus its travel budget on a trip to play East Coast teams, left Dominican on an island. With no conference travel partner, the Penguins were placed in the same position as former D-II member Grand Canyon (Phoenix, Ariz.), which opted for club status in 2012 because of the budget stress brought on by isolation. In order to keep Dominican on its upward trajectory, it would have required an expanded commitment from the institution, and this is likely what ultimately led to the regression.

To cover all the bases, the Penguins did get into a dust-up with WILA archrival Colorado Mesa at the end of the season, which probably didn't play well among the administrators. It was an embarrassing event, certainly, but seemingly not one that would mandate a self-imposed death penalty.

Whatever the reasons, Dominican is gone now.

Overall, Division II is doing just fine. It'll be adding four new programs (Colorado State-Pueblo, Davis & Elkins, Lincoln Memorial and North Greenville) in 2015, and several more appear to be on the horizon. At its current growth rate, D-II will overtake D-I as the NCAA subset with the second-highest membership before the end of the decade.

But perceptions can blur reality. When a talented, regionally-ranked team opts to pull the plug, it sends chills up the spines of every athletic director contemplating adding the sport. That makes it more than just a Dominican issue. It's a divisional and lacrosse one, as well.

Maybe a bit of handwringing is in order.