The end of the 2018-2019 Merrimack College women’s lacrosse season will go down as one of my top favorite moments as a coach. This team found something deep within themselves, learned to believe, and left everything out on the field. I could not be prouder of them and what they accomplished, bringing their skills to the field against three of the top teams in the nation. While it was disappointing not to make it into the NCAA tournament after such a spectacular season, I would never want to take anything away from the teams in the East region that did. They all are truly deserving and some of the nation’s best teams. We at Merrimack, truly hope that the NCAA crown remains in the East region at the end of the season.
As I reflect on our season, I want to open up a discussion about an important part of Division II tournament play: regional selection. Merrimack’s journey to the Northeast 10 championship was every fan’s dream. The late surge, a team that was hiding quietly, finding their groove, getting it late… and then sometimes continuing into the NCAA tournament. We watch it every year in all sports. But how did that team get there? Their record doesn’t stack up to the other teams in the country’s record. They got there by either earning their conference’s Automatic Qualifying (AQ) bid or via an at-large bid. AQ bids are given to NCAA sponsored conferences in sports and Divisions that allow AQs. Unfortunately, Division II women’s lacrosse does not have AQs and only four “at large” bids that are allocated to the four regions equally. There are a lot of things that go into the selection of who gets those bids and unfortunately, in Merrimack’s case, our losses during the regular season did too much damage to get us regionally ranked by the end of the season. At the end of the day we were 11-7 in Division II lacrosse (as well as a regular season game against a Division I opponent that made our overall record 11-8), which wasn’t good enough compared to those ranked above us.
NCAA Division II lacrosse has four regions right now. Each region sends their four best programs to the NCAA tournament. It is based on a number of different factors, ranging from wins/losses within your region, record against out of region opponents, to strength of schedule, and many more factors. All things that coaches take into deep consideration as we build our schedules. Since the teams are chosen regionally, there is a team in the NCAA field with a similar won-loss record as Merrimack. They were from a different region and were ranked as one of the top four teams in that region. We have been working hard over the past seven years in Division II to expand our bracket. When I first began coaching in Division II, only eight teams in the country went to the NCAA Tournament. We are now up to 16 which is better than it ever has been, but with over 120 schools we still have a long way to go until the number of berths in the tournament matches our rate of growth.
Now is where I will share my personal opinions, my last remarks to the Division II world before Merrimack transitions to Division I. We need to fix this system to ensure that it serves the sport, and our players. Right now, I don’t think AQs are the answer for women’s lacrosse. I think we grew at a rapid rate, which is amazing, but our spread of talent is like the depth of my roster when I started a program from scratch: it is ALL over the place and it is from everywhere. I completely understand the rationale to regionalize when DII first began expanding its bracket – we needed it. However, as I am sitting here watching the four teams in my region practice for their last time before its survive and advance or lose and go home, I can’t help but wonder how my team would stack up against the rest of the competition that will be competing in the NCAA tournament this May.
So, what is the solution? I think that is a conversation for the Division II group to really dive into next year. No personal agendas, no thoughts of how it will affect your region this year, next year or in the future. Just the shared value of ensuring that the BEST of Division II lacrosse is represented in our National Championship Tournament. We do have a small bracket in comparison to many of our counterparts, and that’s okay. We can keep working to improve that while at the same time looking at how to better represent our current players. Merrimack is not the first and will not be the last school to go on this type of ride during a season. It will happen again, so let’s figure out a way to make sure when teams knock off #1 and #2 in the country in a 5-day window, we find a way to get them in the tournament. It wasn’t a fluke, but we peaked too late, we made too many mistakes early on. We gave one heck of a ride at the end though, one that will go down in Merrimack and even NE10 history.
One last thing: to my team, I have to take a moment and use this forum to say publicly how proud I am—how proud Merrimack is—of how you went out in Division II lacrosse. It truly was a Cinderella story. Hopefully, your story can be the catalyst for change in the DII system. To our seniors, thank you. You went from 14th place in the NE10 in year one to a NE10 Championship in year four. Your stories are unbelievable and you have certainly stamped a lasting legacy on this program and in Division II lacrosse. Continue to pour your heart and souls into everything you do, and you will continue to be shakers, movers, and changers. What a season! Go Mack!