Since the MCLA began, it was created with the intent to provide kids an opportunity to play intercollegiate lacrosse that wouldn’t otherwise because of the lack of a varsity program at their school. For almost 20 years, it has been very successful at this and has done a wonderful job to help spur on the growth of lacrosse at schools across the nation who weren’t given an opportunity at an NCAA sanctioned program.
This year, 208 teams will play in the MCLA in two divisions, with each division competing for a chance at the National Title at the end of the season. Unfortunately, as lacrosse has grown, some of the biggest schools in the MCLA have been required to leave the league as their schools add lacrosse to their varsity sports.
This isn’t a new problem to the MCLA though, and according to MCLA President Tony Scazzero, this is something they have dealt with almost every year in the league. Most recently being this year when Marquette tried to petition their way back into the league. Scazzero said they have never tried to stop it, or even avoid it, but there was never a circumstance that warranted a passing vote into the league.
What actually happens to the MCLA programs after their varsity counterparts make their way into the picture? In an effort to keep the perception of the MCLA as THE top lacrosse team on campus and never anything less, those programs aren’t allowed back into the MCLA once there is a varsity program on campus.
MCLA Operating Policy – Article 1, Section 4, Point A:
“MCLA participation shall be open to all intercollegiate men’s lacrosse teams that are recognized organizations at their academic institutions, but that do not compete in the NCAA. Each school may only have one team per institution.”
This has been the policy since the MCLA was formed in 1996 and was formed with very good reasoning. Coach John Paul gave me the background of the decision.
“The policy was originally established back when the MCLA was formed in 1996. The MCLA was known as the USILA then. The USILA is the governing body of NCAA men’s lacrosse. The USILA took on this affilliation with college club lacrosse in hopes that it could lead to new varsity programs. Since that was the goal, it made no sense to include schools that already had varsity lacrosse.
When the club teams left the USILA for US Lacrosse and became the US Lacrosse Intercollegiate Associates, or USILA (which confused a lot of people since USILA was so close to USLIA), the college coaches asked the IA Board of Directors to refrain from taking schools that had varsity programs. The fear was that a highly structured, successful, visible club team on campus could jeopardize the existence of the varsity team at a time when lacrosse programs were being cut. We (the Board) agreed to honor the wishes of the varsity coaches, and that policy has remained since.”
With the MCLA currently standing as the premier league for club lacrosse, this becomes a big problem for those left wanting to play club ball at a high level after a varsity program is adopted at their school. No offense to the NCLL, the GLLL or GCLA, but the legitimacy and organization that the MCLA offers is unmatched by any other club league. For comparison’s sake, the NCLL has 124 teams (primarily all on the East coast) and the GLLL has 39 (via LaxPower).
With varsity teams being added rather than cut these days, this issue will only continue to surface. So why continue to adhere to this policy? Is there still a looming fear that the club team on a varsity campus would have an advantage due to the varsity program? Would the varsity coach use the MCLA team as a type of farm team or JV squad?
The NCLL currently operates with clubs at schools with varsity programs and this could very well factor into the level at which those teams compete. Coach JP actually mentioned that Michigan still currently has a club team which competes in the GLLL. While it’s not like every team is going to make the jump in the next few years, it is a loss for the MCLA every time a program starts a varsity team.
Scazerro gave me an example that has come up many times in this discussion, “Would you want to see TWO Virginia teams, or two Syracuse teams in the National Championship of their respective leagues?” While I could see Virginia and Syracuse saying ‘yes’, I would have to agree with the league. Keeping a clear line of teams between the two leagues helps to grow not only lacrosse, but each individual league and the competition within it.
The MCLA strives to stay as professional and legitimate as possible and Scazzero actually addressed this as a “great problem to have”, saying that it has been awesome to see more and more collegiate lacrosse each year, “as lacrosse grows there is an opportunity to provide that opportunity to play collegiately.”
But what do you do when more and more teams pick up NCAA programs? No matter how many years down the road it could be, this is an issue that will continue to occur. The MCLA has had discussions about two main ideas to work through the growing pains: 1) Become more inclusive and add pieces that fit perfectly to the MCLA or 2) Manage the growth and form different segments of the MCLA.
The biggest issue addressed with the second option, and in any case where there is both a varsity and an MCLA program at a school, is policing the teams. While not everyone is going to go out and work off each other, that possibility will be there and the fear right with it.
From talking with both Scazzero and John Paul, it is very clear that the MCLA is well aware of this problem and is constantly trying to stay ahead of the curve on issues like this. They’ve already recognized the fact that as more teams enter the MCLA, the need for Regional Tournaments to qualify for the National Tournament will be greater and greater – as all the At-Large bids will be claimed by individual conferences.
To get the complete picture, I wanted to talk to someone who has directly been affected by the policy and reached out to Marquette, who as of last year had an MCLA squad competing in the UMLC D1. Team President Maxwell Klutke was actually on that team and spoke with me about the transition process and how it has affected Marquette’s club program.
KS: How has this affected your MCLA program and players on the team?
MK: Since the NCAA program was put into place we were kicked out of the league because of the MCLA rules. We are currently in the Great Lakes Lacrosse League (GLLL). This is going to be quite a shift from what we have been used too. I do not want to discredit the GLLL because they have been very accommodating and helpful with the transition, but the competition level is not what we have come to know.
The MCLA is the premier club league, and has the best teams in the Midwest in it, so while we are grateful for the GLLL, the intensity and competition is not going to be the same. Although we are not apart of the MCLA, we are able to play MCLA teams, but only as exhibition games. Over the years we have made connections and have been able to schedule 3-4 game this year against MCLA teams. There are many other teams that we have played year in and year out and have been great rivals games, but we weren’t able to schedule those games since there is no incentive for teams to play a non-league team in the thick of the season.
What steps did you take to try and keep the MCLA team alive?
We were very determined to stay in the MCLA and tried as hard as we could to stay in league. We took several steps to try and keep our status. For one, we sent a petition to every head coach/president in MCLA (only A division) and requesting them to “sign” in agreement of our position. I have attached the petition. We got 10-15 coaches to “sign”.
Second, we got the NCAA head coach to provides us a written statement telling how he does not have any intention to use the D1 program as a farm system or to his advantage in any way, and that he sees us as a completely separate entity. He was extremely helpful, and was wanting to help us in any way possible. Finally, we sent both myself and my secretary to the annual MCLA board meeting to present our case in from of both the E-board and the head of the conferences.
In a nutshell (and from speaking with Coach John Paul), the MCLA has this rule in effect to keep the MCLA teams the best lacrosse program at each individual school. What are your thoughts on this rule?
I understand why they have the rule in place because I wouldn’t want to play against a team that is simply a D1 practice squad. They are simply trying to keep the integrity of the league, and I can respect that. While I respect their stance, I do not agree with it. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, especially here in the Midwest, and the fact is that as the sport expands more schools are going to be adding programs, not only division 1, but D2 and D3, which are all going to be in violation of the rule.
The decision we were told at the annual E-Board meeting is that they are going to stick with the precedent since they do not have a way to address the issue with having both a NCAA team and MCLA. No, it is not an easy task for them to address, however by simply kicking the can down the road and not facing the problem as it arises is going to result in negative consequences.
More and more teams are going to be kicked out and start going to other smaller leagues, and the MCLA is going to have to accept a lower skilled team to be in line with the rule of 10 teams per conference. I believe that if the MCLA doesn’t address this issue, in the long run it is going to lose the integrity it is trying to preserve.
What would you recommend to an MCLA squad who might find themselves in your situation?
If, I should say when, other MCLA teams are in this position they should do what we did. Although we were unsuccessful in the outcome, by trying to reach out to other schools and joining together in addressing this problem really is the only way. One team doesn’t seem a pressing issue to a league with 100+ programs, but if we team up we can make an impact.
As this example shows, growth isn’t always easy, but as Scazzero pointed out, it’s a good problem to have. What happened to Marquette will inevitably happen to someone else and teams will continue to both join and leave the MCLA.
The best thing to do is just go with it and make of it what you can. If teams can set a precedent and find a way to remain in the league, more power to them – the MCLA is a great thing to be a part of. After seeing this from both sides, I really do believe the MCLA may have to readdress the policy in the future.
A while back, Will Patton wrote a nice piece on this topic, siding very much with the league and its policy. As the MCLA becomes more and more legitimate and continues to recruit on its own and budget money for coaches, are these problems resolving themselves?
Since I can remember, the MCLA prides itself on operating at a Virtual Varsity level, so my question is this. Would it be possible to have both an MCLA and NCAA team at a school and find a way to keep both separate in their operations?
Big thanks to Maxwell Klutke, Michigan Head Coach John Paul and MCLA President Tony Scazzero for taking the time out of their busy schedules to speak with me about this topic.
If you had a vote, how would you handle this situation? Should MCLA teams be allowed at schools with a varsity program?