March 20th was the first day of spring and the snow is melting with the weather finally starting to escape the cold of winter. Spring brought with it the start of conference games as well as the time of year when seniors can count the number of games left in their college careers with their fingers.
Getting an at large bid for the NCAA playoffs in May is only a reality for a handful of teams at the Division 1, 2, and 3 levels. For teams not in the ACC or Big Ten, their only way to reach the postseason is by winning their conference championship and capturing the golden ticket to the playoffs; the automatic qualifier.
Non-conference games are important. They give teams an opportunity to play Top 20 opponents or teams they traditionally would not play. However, when conference play starts these games could end up meaning absolutely nothing. A team could go 0-7 in their non-conference games, but finish 7-0 in conference and make it to the NCAA playoffs or vice versa. Most teams in the country live or die in conference play.
Most lacrosse fans are missing out on some of the most exciting games of the year as they only watch or follow the big name teams playing conference games in the ACC, Big Ten, or Ivy League. College lacrosse’s best kept secrets are the grudge matches played between teams in the NEC, MAAC, America East, or SoCon conferences. A game between two teams fighting for a playoff spot in these conferences will be the more intense, dramatic, and gritty than watching Hopkins play Maryland on national TV again like they do every year.
The players on these teams are not playing to become All-Americans and will not get a write up about their game on Inside Lacrosse the next day. They are playing for their teammates and coaches, for pride, and for the chance to get one more week together as a team in the conference playoffs.
I’ve seen pregame punches thrown at midfield, cheap shots on star players, and coaches ready to hit each other in the heat of the moment if there was not a ref standing in the way in conference games where the hopes of 40 young lacrosse players lie in every ground ball, penalty, shot, or save.
When I played at Canisius, every game in the MAAC was the biggest game of the season. You play against the same guys for 4 years and genuinely hate them for ending your season one year and they hate you for ending theirs the next. The teams are usually evenly matched so anything could happen and most years teams sneak into the conference playoffs solely based on goal differential. My freshman year in 2014, 5 out of 7 teams had a 3-3 conference record and a different team has won the championship every year since 2008. Scoring an extra goal in a loss could be the difference between being one of four playoff teams or your season. That is why we call it the “Wacky MAAC.”
Every mid-major or lower tier college lacrosse team wants to spoil the party and have people scratching their heads at their TV screens in May wondering where the hell Bryant is or how do you even say Canisius? (kuh-NEE-shuhs). Seeing your team’s name on the Selection Show for the NCAA playoffs along with the likes of Yale and Notre Dame is beyond surreal. The reality for most D1 teams is that the only way they will ever get there is by winning their conference at all costs.
The next time you are looking at what college lacrosse games are streaming, turn on a game with NEC, MAAC, America East, or SoCon teams that you would usually pass by. You will see teams that might not get blue chip recruits or several different pairs of helmets and gloves, but embrace being the underdogs and will battle it out amongst one another to see who can come out of April with a chance to surprise the lacrosse world.