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November 2, 2009

Survival Guide for the Western Indies

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

When the 2010 Division III women's lacrosse season starts there will be 12 hearty programs operating west of the Mississippi.*

Despite their locations thousands of miles away from the lacrosse-dense Eastern Seaboard, they proudly hold the lacrosse flag aloft in the face of tough scheduling, challenging recruiting tools, and remote access to traditional high school hotbeds. They are truly the pioneers of our sport and, even if they aren't considered overly-competitive at this point, they should be lauded for providing more options.

And I'm worried about them.

I'm worried primarily because this year marks the first time since 2001 that the western independents are in serious jeopardy of being unrepresented in the NCAA tournament field. A lot of people probably don't think this is a big deal. Others will say that is the way it should be; we shouldn't be wasting bids on these teams that have very little chance of going deep in the tournament.

Say what you want about Colorado College and, in the last couple of years, Claremont, getting an invitation to the tourney, but those selections held great importance for continued western growth. In addition to the programs popping up all alone, like Dallas, Carthage (Wis.), North Central (Ill.) and Fontbonne (Mo.), we're starting to see enclaves.

We already have a SoCal group (Claremont, Pomona, Redlands, and Whittier) and a Pacific Northwest bunching (Linfield, Puget Sound and Pacific). This is a very important phenomenon. While the development of these teams lends itself in part to the nature of the schools - small, private institutions that draw well in the East - there is no question that the accessibility to an essentially dedicated Pool B bid for the western teams sweetened the pot.

Through no fault of anyone's really, that one bid may be reeled Back East this spring.

There will be five Pool B bids again in 2010, according to Michelle Forkner at the NCAA, and four of the teams that captured B berths in '09 - TCNJ, Rowan, Catholic and Drew - are strong candidates to reprise their roles. This would seem to again leave one bid for the Western Indies, but a new candidate has arisen.

In 2010, Adrian (Mich.) has to be considered the front-runner for the final spot.

Honestly, I thought Adrian was going to grab a spot last year, and had the Bulldogs defeated either Wittenberg or Wooster, they probably would have. Adrian's penchant for running up the score - John Sung's team hung 33 goals on two different overmatched opponents last spring - probably didn't endear itself to the committee, but it still had a strong resume and may have acquitted itself better than Claremont. This year, there won't be any conjecture as the Bulldogs and Athenas meet on May 5 to likely determine who gets the final berth.

If Adrian wins and the Western Indies are frozen out of the tournament, it will be a setback for our westerly friends. The potential for this scenario means action must be taken to strengthen their foundation and the solution is relatively obvious, although it will take a combined effort - and perhaps embracing the notion of "the greater good" - to implement it.

The Western Indies need to develop, publicize and brand an early-season or spring break tournament.

I'm not talking about a four-team, two-game event like Colorado College utilizes. No, I'm thinking on a far grander scale. Perhaps not quite up to the expansive, multi-divisional set-ups they have in Florida and Hilton Head, but one that will draw six mid-to-upper level D-III programs, in addition to as many of the Western Indies that can to show up for a weeklong lacrosse binge.

In order to satisfy the needs of everyone involved, the event would have to guarantee at least two high-level games for each of the top teams making the trip, preferably within their region, with the understanding those teams would also have play a pair of games against the Indies (many of which they would be able to play in the same day, if they chose).

The location is where this tournament can really sell itself.

With four teams in the Greater L.A. area, this becomes ground zero for the tourney. All of the activities in the city and surrounding metroplex will be an effective lure for schools Back East looking for a change of venue from the usual spring break choices. Plus, the chance to grab a share of the exploding SoCal girl's prep lacrosse scene would be worth it alone.

There might be a time when this Western Indies tourney could be moved to the Pacific Northwest, or maybe Dallas, but for now, it starts in Los Angeles. To counter the benefit of always holding it in SoCal, the four Indies in the area must defray the costs of running the tournament while guaranteeing games for any and all of the other eight Indies that can make the event.

It's not going to be an easy proposition. As the organizers of other spring break tournaments can tell you, it takes a year-long effort and pinpoint coordination to make these things work. There will be cost implications, as well, but those can be pared down with a little teamwork among the independents.

This communal mentality may not make sense for some of the independent schools from an academic profile or demographic perspective, but it's important to remember this about women's lacrosse survival, not rubbing elbows with schools in the same U.S. News & World Report rankings. And even if it is, then invite other Eastern schools to fill that void.

There are plenty of nitty-gritty details of the event, which I won't get into here, but not only is this Western Independent Tournament plausible, events of the next eight months could make it a necessity.

And even if it doesn't directly lead to earning a Pool B berth for one of the Indies, it could provoke some other schools in the West to add women's lacrosse and become part of the party. Pool B is likely to contract sooner than it is to expand since the Landmark, NJAC, and SCAC could potentially move to Pool A in the next three years. This could slash two, maybe three, bids from the beta pond, further toughening the road for the Western Dozen.

The best case scenario is obviously Claremont or Colorado College holding onto the West's bid this spring, but this still doesn't preclude implementing a tournament that will not only raise the competitive level, but also lower travel costs and promote growth.

In 10 or 15 years, the dozen or so teams that have opened up the massive western expanse of this country will be looked on as noble pioneers. Just like the intrepid settlers before them, they will face obstacles and hard times, but with a little ingenuity and advanced planning, they should be able to survive and thrive. For the western lacrosse programs, it starts with coordinating a large, annual tournament.

* - I have included North Central, which is 100 miles east of the Mighty Miss.

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