The vast majority of rivalries involved two sides, but every once in a while, you find a three-way rivalry that really works. It’s rare, but special, and I’m happy to say that I played a small part in a great one. I would even go so far as to say that this three-way rivalry played a large part in the success of my college program.
The Little Three consists of Amherst College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College. While all three of these schools play in the NESCAC, the three-way rivalry is alive and well at each institution. I went to Wesleyan, and when I got there we were pretty much the doormat of The Little Three and the NESCAC in most sports.
You can learn a lot more about the history of The Little Three here, and it goes back a long way… officially from 1899, but some competition went down before then. I highly recommend reading up on it, so that my experience makes more sense. Lacrosse started up in 1961.
Ok, back to me. When I got Wesleyan in the fall of 1999, we hadn’t won a Little Three title in men’s lacrosse since 1983. 1984 had been the last time there had been a 3-way tie. It had been sixteen years since a flag had flown for Wesleyan lacrosse, even in an everyone is equal sense, which is rare for us. While Amherst and Williams were strong programs, we were definitely on the rise, and things felt like they were about to change. Some of us talked about never losing a Little Three, but it wasn’t a big thing. As a freshman, it didn’t even seem possible.
During the spring of 2000, we beat Amherst 13-12 in OT. We had not defeated them in Little Three play since 1993. Things looked up, but then we lost to a very talented Williams team 14-13 on the road. We thought our first loss, and another Williams title was imminent. Amherst then proceeded to knock off the Ephs 9-7 to create a three-way tie for this three-way rivalry. Year one for me ended with a clean slate, and a 0-0-0 score. It was a good step, but we had to take another big one.
During 2001, my sophomore year, we were loaded on offense, and young on D. We went 17-3, set a school record for wins (later broken) and topped both Amherst (9-6) and Williams (20-15). Wesleyan was outright champs for the first time in 18 years and it didn’t feel like a fluke. The program had turned around, and we were leading the way for an improvement across the board of Wesleyan’s athletic teams.
2002 was a bit of a down year for the team, and we barely managed a .500 record. We had graduated a lot, and while we managed to keep the streak alive with a win over Amherst (11-10), we lost to Williams, again on the road, and in front of a raucous Williamstown crowd, 10-9. Amherst again saved us from a Williams title, as they had done in 2000, by defeating the Ephs 12-8. Ephs are purple cows, sort of. Not really. Just in case you were wondering, you can learn more here. Read it. It’s old-timey!
During my Senior year we again knocked off Amherst (4-0 as a player!) by a score of 11-10, in OT. Man, we had a ton of close games with the Lord Jeffs! Williams we played at home, and took them down 19-10. I think I even had a goal in that game as a defenseman. Check the score sheet… yup, I did. Who am I kidding? I remember it, and because it was against Williams, at home, for the Little Three, it meant the world to me. Definitely my favorite goal, even if I should have passed it to a wide open attackman. Sorry, Sam. Had to be greedy.
Two years as an assistant with Wesleyan and we won two more Little Three titles. 2004 and 2005 were special teams, and the 2005 squad made the program’s first ever trip to the NCAAs, reaching the Elite 8. Can you see how the Little Three helped them get there? A program gets used to winning something small, then they want to win something bigger.
There was a three-way tie in 2007, but Wesleyan made the Final Four. The Little Three was a draw in 2008, and Wesleyan made the FF again. In 2009, Williams won the Little Three, but Wesleyan won its first ever NESCAC title. Williams had won the NESCAC in 2008. All of this success is tied to that three-way rivalry, and the three schools each truly committing to their lacrosse programs. As an alum no longer involved with the program directly, I care about The Little Three as much as a NESCAC title. It might seem silly, but to me it’s the foundation of our program.
I loved being a part of this rivalry. We looked forward to each and every NESCAC game, and knew they would all be battles. But the Amherst and Williams games took on another level of passion and pride. You played harder, and there was more on the line. Never losing a Little Three? That’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Going undefeated against Amherst during my career, and all of the tight games we had… all of that was great, and I could see how that is enough for most people. But having to play another team to truly be called the Champion was something different, and for me, it was something I embraced. There were years where there was no champion, where no team truly established themselves as the best, and I fully believe that this element makes the rivalry that much more interesting, and also propelled all three programs to new heights, and continued success.
If it makes sense to bring a third team into your rivalry, I’d think about it. It might help more than you think.