HARRISONBURG — The sport of lacrosse continues to grow, both nationally and in the Shenandoah Valley, thanks in large part to success of area teams such as James Madison’s 2018 national championship women’s squad.
But there are some limits to growth locally, particularly at JMU where the success of the women’s program won’t lead to the start of a varsity men’s program anytime soon.
Though Madison has a facility in place at Sentara Park, a strong regional recruiting base and name brand recognition in the sport thanks to the women’s title, plenty of factors make it difficult to add such a large and costly men’s sport to the Dukes’ existing 18 sponsored by the athletic department.
“It’s not on our radar for many reasons,” JMU assistant athletic director for communications Kevin Warner said. “Title IX and budget impact for that sport. Impact on communications, etc., and other initiatives already planned in our department and facility use impact would make it extremely difficult to consider.”
Over the past 15 years the number of men’s lacrosse teams in the NCAA has increased by 77.6 percent and women’s by 97.3 percent, but schools with an existing women’s program have often struggled to remain Title IX compliant with the addition of a men’s team. Some schools, such as Michigan and Marquette in recent years, have added both men’s and women’s programs at the same time to keep the balance between men’s and women’s sports intact. Richmond, another school that added men’s lacrosse in the past decade, cut men’s soccer.
“I do think men’s lacrosse would be extremely successful here,” Warner said. “But we don’t currently have the ability to support it.”
JMU women’s coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe said she understands the administrative challenges of adding a men’s program, but if that opportunity ever presented itself for James Madison, she’d welcome it wholeheartedly.
“Having both a men’s and women’s team would certainly help continue to build a lacrosse culture here,” she said. “Selfishly, we’d love to see JMU add men’s lacrosse. It would give people more convenience and access to see it. The more of that the better for my program, but I also understand the challenges of the administration for compliance. Giving the sports we do have what they need to be successful is just as important as adding another piece to the puzzle.”
Still, increased popularity of both the men’s and women’s games has indirect effect on JMU.
With Virginia’s men team claiming the NCAA championship Monday, the region continues to get great attention nationally and youth programs have sprung up around the Valley in recent years with both national champion coaches Klaes-Bawcombe and the Cavaliers’ Lars Tiffany quite active in their support.
On top of that, lacrosse continues to expand geographically. JMU was part of the first West Coast NCAA Tournament game in 2016 when the Dukes took on Stanford in the Los Angeles Coliseum and Utah became the western-most Division I men’s program after a donor put up more than $15 million to start the team and beach volleyball was added to help offset Title IX issues.
“When you look at a James Madison or a Stanford or Boston College and the success they’ve had on the women’s side, that could translate to men’s with the facilities in place and the same kind of commitment,” Adam Ghitelman, a former Virginia goalie and current Utah assistant said. “But the Title IX legislation can hamper schools with a football program. At Utah we didn’t have men’s soccer, which helped make it possible, but what we’re seeing is even more increased and sustainable youth and high school programs west of Denver.”
All that considered, JMU’s traditional recruiting footprint has incrsed beyond the Baltimore-Washington area up to New York with areas such as Minnesota and Florida producing top-level players.
“It’s really exciting what we are seeing,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “We’ve been seeing the numbers gradually increase on the youth side and see it reflected all the way up through the college ranks is incredible. It speaks to a lot of the decisions we are making within the sport to help it evolve in the right way.”