On Tuesday, The Johns Hopkins University released their 2018 schedule. Navy also announced their 2018 slate on the same day. (Here’s a breakdown of Hop’s schedule & Navy’s schedule courtesy of The Kid Chris.) One thing that immediately jumps out at you when you look at both schedules is that Navy & Hopkins won’t be playing each other in 2018. Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette wrote an article lamenting the loss of the rivalry for at least 2018 & 2019.
Many people on Lacrosse Twitter were not happy about the news.
Hopkins & Navy won’t be playing in 2018. Throwing away rivalries is never a good idea. pic.twitter.com/v2X6e8rYfx— Quint Kessenich (@QKessenich) October 24, 2017
This stinks!— B'ville Boys Lax (@Bville_Boys_Lax) October 24, 2017
AD's should be ashamed of themselves.— Brooke Seward (@brooke_seward) October 24, 2017
Whaaaat? That's absurd!— J. Curtis Neal (@jcneal47) October 25, 2017
Beyond sad ....— Paul Basile (@feedthecrease) October 25, 2017
Awful— Chaz (@chazbertrand) October 24, 2017
There’s a lot more of that, but you get the picture. People didn’t like the news! Indeed, I too am a bit disappointed about losing Navy from Hop’s schedule. The Jays & Navy have played each other 90 times in a series that dates back to a 6-1 Johns Hopkins victory in 1908 (JHU leads 62-27-1). Hop won the 90th match-up back in February and the game produced UNARGUABLY the best play of 2017 in Joel Tinney’s hidden ball trick & goal. (Shout out to Huntva for the clip)
I can certainly appreciate the frustration at temporarily losing a big rivalry game. Hop vs. Navy is always a fun one to watch and the close proximity between the two schools certainly helped to intensify the rivalry. Even though Hopkins had at one point a 36-game win streak over Navy that ended in 2010, every JHU fan understood that the Navy game was always one of, if not the most, physically & mentally challenging games on Hopkins’ schedule every year. I mean, you’re literally going up against soldiers when you play the service academies. All those lads are in top physical shape, mentally sharp, and very tough.
While I’m not a fan of the news, I’m also not really that angry about it either. For one thing, I was already exposed to Hop temporarily losing a rival from its schedule when Loyola & Hopkins suspended their series in 2015 and I survived that one. Hop vs. Loyola dates back to 1939 and the Hounds are right up the block from JHU, so you could argue the rivalry is just as intense as the series between JHU & Navy.
(Hopkins & Loyola resumed their series in 2016, and the 2017 edition gave us UNARGUABLY the second best play of the year, in Joel Tinney’s other hidden ball trick & goal, this time in overtime. I swear this post isn’t solely meant to kick off the Joel Tinney for 2018 Tewaaraton campaign.)
Losing the Hop vs. Loyola series for 2015 was certainly a blow for all lacrosse fans. Loyola was then, and still is, one of the hottest teams in game, and the Hounds had just won the title in 2012. Then, like now, I saw/read many people (including lots of JHU fans) blaming Hop’s move to the Big Ten as the culprit for the temporary suspension of the series. (All the while ignoring the fact Loyola played in a then 8-team Patriot League conference, it’s now 9, which meant it didn’t have much flexibility in its out of conference schedule either, but I digress.) However, I was not that angry about the Loyola news then or Navy news now because I learned to accept (AND LOVE!!) the Conference Era of college lacrosse a long time ago.
Indeed, 2015 was the first year Hop was in the Big Ten, and yes it had to find dates for Rutgers & Penn State for their 2015 schedule (Hop was already playing Michigan & Ohio State by 2013 & 2014, respectively), additionally, the Big Ten mandates that conference play begins in April. This meant that the Hopkins vs. Loyola game, which was usually the last regular season game for both teams in late April, had to be moved from its normal spot for it to be continued in 2015. The teams couldn’t find a good date and the series took a hiatus in 2015.
Now would I’ve liked to have played the Hounds in 2015? Absolutely! It’s a great series and Loyola is an elite program. However, I’d rather Hopkins be in the Big Ten than be an independent, and that means the occasional suspension of a cherished series. In 2015 it was Loyola, next season it’s Navy. Things could change & the circumstances may be that it’s better for Hopkins to go back as an independent (or move to a new conference), but for the time being, I’m quite happy with the Jays in the Big Ten instead of being an independent, even if that means occasionally losing a rival from the non-conference slate.
As many of you probably remember, Hopkins was infamously SNUBBED from the 2013 NCAA tournament snapping a 42-year consecutive streak of making the dance, despite the Jays finishing the regular season 9-5. Now you could make the argument that Hopkins didn’t deserve to be in the tournament that year, but that would be a mean & petty thing to say. The more important point about that year is that as the competition for tournament bids has increased, playing as an independent is tantamount to playing with one hand behind your back, as it relegates you solely to the at-large bid corner on Selection Sunday.
While I would’ve loved for Hopkins to play Loyola in 2015, the Hounds had a bit of a down season that year and finished 7-8. Hopkins wasn’t having that great of a regular season either, and even if you added a win over Loyola that year, JHU might not have made the 2015 NCAA tournament based on its regular season record alone because of its lack of quality wins that year besides a victory over Maryland. Indeed, but for Hop winning the 2015 Big Ten Tournament, JHU might not have made it to Philly that year for the Final Four, and I might not have gotten the chance to hang with Jay at X-Finity outside of Lincoln Financial Stadium two years ago. That’s something I don’t even want to contemplate.
Joining a conference in 2015 was in Hopkins best interest as it provided the team an avenue to the NCAA tournament besides just an at-large bid. Just like it was in Navy’s best interest to forego its independent status back in 2000 to join UMass, Georgetown, UMBC, Penn State, Rutgers and Stony Brook in forming the ECAC. Before the creation of the ECAC in 2000, there were only 3 conferences with automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament (the America East, Ivy League, & Patriot League) and only 12 teams made the NCAA tournament (the NCAA tournament expanded from 8 originally in 1971, to 10 in 1986, 12 in 1987, and 16 in 2003). Competition for an at-large bid then wasn’t as bad as it is now, but it was still difficult to receive one if you weren’t Hopkins, Syracuse, or an ACC team.
Navy’s move to the ECAC was triggered in part by the fact that Bucknell was left out of the NCAA tournament in 1996 despite an undefeated season. The 1996 Bison team demonstrated that even winning every game on your regular season schedule may not be enough to get you an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, especially if you weren’t an elite program. I think it would be fair to say that the 1996 Bison team kicked off the Conference Era we’re still in today.
Shortly after joining the ECAC, Navy left the conference to join the Patriot League in 2004, where it had been a member of in all other sports since 1991. Navy enjoyed great success in the Patriot League for most of the late 2000s. Indeed, from 1995-2003, Navy made the NCAA tournament only once (1999), but in the first six years in the Patriot League, Navy made the NCAA tournament five times (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009), helped in large part by winning the conference’s automatic qualifier courtesy of winning the Patriot League Tournament in each of those five years.
Winning your conference’s automatic qualifier is by far the preferable way of getting into the the tournament instead of sweating it out on Selection Sunday as an at-large. The 2004 Navy team won the Patriot League Tournament & made it all the way to Memorial Day Monday to play Syracuse in the national title game. Who knows, maybe Navy makes that same run as an independent. But it is fair to say that it probably would’ve been much more difficult.
Being in a conference means that sometimes you won’t be able to play all your non-conference rivals in April like you’d want. Teams could of course schedule more midweek games in April, however, I’m not going to second-guess schedule decisions, especially given the heightened level of scrutiny on coaches regarding their wins & losses and making/not making the tournament.
As more schools add D1 lacrosse, things like Hopkins not playing Navy this year will continue to happen more frequently, so it doesn’t make sense to get all worked up about the inevitable. Indeed, I don’t think it is crazy to think schools like American, George Washington, George Mason, LaSalle, all get a men’s lacrosse program in the next 5-7 years, which would cause a major shake-up in college lacrosse. You may think its far-fetched, but all four schools have the right ingredients to add a men’s lacrosse program: they are all in talent rich areas, they each already have a women’s lacrosse program, they each sponsor more women’s sports than men’s sports, & none of them have a football program.
You could very well see an Atlantic 10 conference in men’s lacrosse in the next 5-10 years, if George Washington, George Mason, or LaSalle added a men’s lacrosse program. There are already four natural Atlantic 10 teams with D1 men’s lacrosse programs Richmond, UMass, St. Joe’s, & (in 2019) St. Bonaventure; the addition of one more A-10 team plus an associate member (maybe Cleveland St.) would give the Atlantic 10 six teams, and an automatic qualifier. The impact of the A-10 adding a conference would be significant, as conferences like the NEC, CAA, & SoCon would be affected if St. Joe’s, UMass, & or Richmond, respectively, left to form an A-10.
While there are obviously many hurdles to adding a D1 men’s lacrosse program, we are currently witnessing a massive change in higher education as more schools report declining enrollment numbers. The impact of these declines has made schools reevaluate the costs & benefits of adding men’s lacrosse. In situations like St. Bonaventure it actually made financial sense adding men’s lacrosse.
Two years ago, just weeks after he was named St. Bonaventure athletic director, succeeding Steve Watson, Tim Kenney sat down with me to discuss his plans for the university’s sports future. The result was a three-part series detailing everything from upgrades to the Reilly Center, to a new artificial-surfaced soccer/lacrosse field to raises for assistant coaches. And as the one-hour interview ended, he added an off-the-record thought, “Sooner, rather than later, we’re going to add men’s lacrosse.”
Kenney questioned me about the incredulous look that crossed my face. “I teach a sports writing class,” was my response. “I deal with enough academics to know that many of them don’t want to hear that a university in the midst of declining enrollment and its corollary financial stress is adding another sport.” His response was well-considered.
“That’s the point,” Kenney explained. “Yeah, there are start-up costs and there’s some scholarship money, but it’s not a lot and its distributed among the team. “But, in exchange, we get 40 to 50 new students that we might not normally have and if they stay four years that’s a significant financial influx.” AND THAT’S good news for St. Bonaventure which announced, on Wednesday, that men’s lacrosse will be added for the 2018-19 academic.
In the press release about the new sport, Kenney expressed many of the points he made to me two springs ago. “For a number of reasons the addition of men’s lacrosse at St. Bonaventure is extremely beneficial to our institution,” he said. “This is a strategic decision that recognizes an opportunity for our department and the university.”
As more schools add men’s lacrosse, existing conferences will get bigger (are you ready for a 10-team Patriot League with the addition of American?) & new ones might be created (I really don’t think we’re too far away from a 6-team Atlantic 10 men’s lacrosse conference). Things like new programs & conferences, or the suspension of a rivalry game can understandably be disconcerting, but fans can’t demand to #GrowTheGame and then expect everything stay the same. It’s one or the other and this is the business we’ve chosen.
So Hopkins vs. Navy is taking a time out for a couple years. That’s a shame, but hopefully it’ll be back soon enough. More importantly, lacrosse will alright if these two take a break this year, because as the famous singer Mr. Tommy Edwards used to say, it’s all in the game.