With a Decision About The 2021 Season Still Pending, The Future of The Ivy League Appears Cloudy

(Photo Courtesy of Yale Athletics)

Since the advent of the NCAA Tournament in 1971, the Ivy League has produced 10 national champions, seven runner-ups, and had a total of 90 tournament appearances. Most recently, Yale won the national title in 2018, was the runner-up in 2019, and in total the conference has been represented at Championship Weekend three of the past five full seasons.

During the shortened 2020 season, the Ivy League looked poised to have its best season as a conference since 1990, where they had four teams make the NCAA Tournament. When the season was cancelled, three teams from the Ivy League were ranked in the top-five (Cornell, Princeton, Yale). Penn was also ranked in the top-20 to end the season, giving the conference four teams ranked in the top-20. Brown and Dartmouth had received votes throughout the season, as well, with Brown receiving votes in the final poll before the season was cancelled.

Simply put, the Ivy League is and has been a powerful conference in lacrosse. It is the only sport in which they are actually able to compete at a high-level in anymore. But that power that the conference holds within the sport could be in very serious jeopardy. And the only ones at fault are themselves.

When the Coronavirus outbreak first hit in March of 2020, the Ivy League was the first team to cancel its season – and rightfully so. But while the rest of the world started to open up and conferences were finding ways to play safely, the Ivy League continued to stand still.

The conference was the first to cancel or move fall sports, despite the majority of big-time college football deciding to play and eventually completing a successful season in the wake of all the unknowns and challenges. In November, the Ivy League made the decision to cancel winter sports and push back spring sports to March 1st.

Since that time, we have only seen one official update from the conference about spring sports. That very update came on Friday when the Yale Daily News reported that they had obtained a status update from the conference on spring sports. And it was anything but pretty or encouraging for those in the lacrosse world.

One section of the report reads, “Students should understand that there must be significant changes in the state of the pandemic before competition becomes feasible and that a number of factors are outside institutional control.” It then goes on to say that if they do play, “an abbreviated, and likely significantly curtailed, competition schedule” is what they will be looking at.

It is also worth noting that due to the Ivy League’s rule that mandates athletes can only compete for eight semesters, many spring sport athletes are in a major dilemma. They can enroll for spring, hope they play, and possibly risk losing a semester of eligibility or not enroll, hope they don’t play and save that semester. With the spring semester on the horizon, that decision date is very, very close for most players and at some schools may have already passed.

As I write this, the college lacrosse season is just 14 days away. Bellarmine at Mercer will be one of, at least, an expected two games on January 30th. So while folks in the SoCon have most of their house in order, and most other conferences, at least, have some sort of direction, the Ivies are alone on an island still waiting.

These decisions that the Ivy League has made is creating a lot of speculation about what the future of the conference will look like. Never have I ever received so many emails and direct messages geared towards one specific conference. And while many don’t feel the league will face anything more than minor setback of one to two seasons, there are some who have a legit fear that the Ivy League is, in a sense, killing itself and won’t ever recapture the hype and respect as a top-tier lacrosse conference.

And while I would argue that with or without the Coronavirus, Ivy League lacrosse was destined to take, at least, a bit of a step back over the next half decade and become a league in which they have only one relevant team per year due to how the sport is changing, the argument that these decisions have sped up that process is certainly intriguing and do have some validation.

Whether the Ivy League does or doesn’t play this season, some expect that we could see a somewhat sizable talent exodus from the conference via the NCAA Transfer Portal, as well as recruits decommitting or flipping. In fact, one could argue that this exodus has already started on the recruiting trail. I don’t necessarily buy it, but I can see why the argument exist.

This fall/winter, there have been five players flip from an Ivy to an ACC or Big Ten. In December, three Taft, Conn., players flipped from an Ivy to Notre Dame. 2022 midfielder Ben Spinelli flipped from Brown, while Jeffery (2021) and Thomas Ricciardelli (2022) flipped from Penn. Additionally, Royal Bay Secondary, B.C., 2022 midfielder Alec Billings flipped to Johns Hopkins from Cornell in January and Highland Park, Texas, 2021 attackman Thomas Mencke flipped from Harvard to Virginia and signed with the Wahoos earlier in the fall.

While we see players flip to and from Ivies every cycle and there is no evidence at all that these decisions were a direct result of the Ivy League’s decisions over the past year, it is something worth noting and is, without a doubt, an example of talent going away from the conference.

The Ivies took a big hit this past spring when the league ruled that the NCAA’s ruling that granted an extra year of eligibility for spring sport athletes didn’t comply with their rules. And while some stars, such as Yale’s TD Ierlan and Cornell’s Jeff Teat were able to find ways to come back, we saw uber-talented players such as Princeton’s Michael Sowers and Yale’s Jackson Morrill enter the transfer portal and take their talents to Duke and Denver, respectively. That is a big blow to a conference that was so revered and crawling with talent just a mere 10 months ago.

Who’s not to say that following the 2021 season we don’t see even more of a talent exodus across the board from the Ivy League. After all, over the course of the past year, the Ivy League has clearly shown that their commitment to athletics is nowhere close to other DI conferences, which isn’t at all a surprise. The Ivies don’t lean on athletic money or care about athletics nearly as much as their counterparts in the ACC and Big Ten.

As I mentioned in my article last March discussing why major football schools will dominate the next decade-plus in the sport, the more lacrosse continues to grow and the further it gets away from that rich, northeastern prep school base that many outsiders associate with the sport the less likely we are going to see the Ivies pull top-tier recruits. This is especially true as pro lacrosse becomes much of a legit dream for a greater number of players. 

Just as we’ve seen in other college sports over the past decade or so, lacrosse is and has been turning a corner and the Ivy League’s seat at the table among the game’s elite year in and year out might not last much longer than three or five years and could be even shorter if they do choose to cancel their season. Now, that’s not to say that a traditional power like Cornell or recent riser such as Yale can’t stay afloat longer than the rest of the league, because they certainly can. But if the league does fall or take a step back, the majority of its teams will likely come down with it.

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