When the No. 13 men’s lacrosse team left the field at the end of its 21-6 shellacking of a wildly overmatched Dartmouth side last Saturday, the celebration was more than just an acknowledgement of a convincing win. The Tigers had clinched a return to the Ivy League Tournament, the three-game extravaganza held on the first weekend of May that has quickly turned into one of the most exciting events in Princeton’s corner of the college sports world. The athletics department was quick to jump on the hype, issuing a breathless release on its website called “Your Guide To The Ivy League Men’s Lacrosse Tournament,” which was still two weeks away.
But the tournament is relevant at the moment because of more than just scheduling and convenient Orange-and-Black momentum. In the last week, speculation has grown about the possibility of an Ancient Eight basketball tournament, with both this paper and the Harvard Crimson taking the time to thoroughly investigate the prospect. Lacrosse and basketball are very different sports with very different cultures, of course, but given the prominent pessimism about a basketball tournament, it may be worth remembering that the lacrosse version has been a serious success.
The implementation of the four-team season-ender — now in its third year — was not always uncontroversial. At least three major concerns briefly arose, soon to be swatted aside: A tournament would lead to less excitement in the newly lower-stakes regular season games, some worried. (This hasn’t proven true.) There may be academic scheduling conflicts, others said. (The conference tournament is still before the NCAA one, which often includes two Ivy teams anyway.) And it’s a break from tradition, cried still more critics. (Come on.)
By 2010, these worries had been assuaged, and the top four finishers met at Cornell to battle it out for the men’s Ivy title. The underdog Tigers pulled off an overtime win for the ages against the hosts, clinching an NCAA Tournament bid. A more convincing pro-tournament argument could hardly have been made, and in the last two years — even as Princeton slipped from contention in 2011 — the reasons for keeping, and loving, the event have become clear.
First, we get to see more lacrosse, a change about which no fan can reasonably complain. You liked it when Ivy teams played six league games? Well, if they play their cards right, they can now play eight.
Second, it’s good for the league’s visibility. The tournament is, almost without fail, a more compelling finish to the year than the final regular season game(s). The post-season matchups are often televised, and such a publicized competition among recognizable schools can only be a good thing for a growing sport like lacrosse.
Third, it provides for better rivalries. The league has traditionally been dominated by the likes of Princeton and Cornell, which, in the pre-tournament era, tended to jockey for national recognition throughout the season, both often making the NCAA Tournament — one as league champion, the other with an at-large bid. As such, these two teams disliked each other. Unsurprisingly, Yale and Harvard maintained a fierce rivalry, Penn didn’t like Princeton, and just about every other Ivy League rivalry still held true for lacrosse. But since schools other than the traditional powerhouses are now afforded a clear chance at the national tournament, the intensity of nearly all regular season games has risen, fueling the fire for rivalries that can explode in the tournament. It is in the post-season, after all, that the underdogs are afforded an unambiguous chance at glory, however fleeting.
Fourth, the first two years of the tournament, and the preceding games, have been really fun — and this year doesn’t look to be any exception to that trend. Princeton thrillingly won the first tournament but didn’t even qualify last season. In previous years, a bad season would be nowhere near as interesting. The Tigers had no real shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament but could have snuck in with the automatic Ivy bid — so they spent the latter half of the season trying to claw their way up the standings instead of resigning themselves to mediocrity. They didn’t make it, but the end of their season was still exciting. This year, Princeton, No. 3 Cornell and Yale (which is also receiving votes in the national poll) have secured three of the spots, but the fourth is up for grabs between Harvard, Brown and Penn, meaning the regular season’s final weekends are deeply meaningful. Without an Ivy tournament, none of these teams would have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. With one, they still have a glimmer of hope.
This kind of exhilaration simply can’t be a bad thing. In the coming weeks, the Northeast will be treated to some of the highest-level and most intense lacrosse of the year. Princeton, Cornell and Yale already know they’ll be playing for a shot at the national tournament, and the first two in that group have reason to believe they could grab a bid even if they don’t win the Ancient Eight competition. But for Penn, Harvard and Brown, the season might as well just be getting started. The teams will play their hearts out for the next two weekends, trying to get to the early-May showcase. And then the remaining four will do it all over again.
What more could we ask for?
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/04/20/30697/