Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

With no women’s lacrosse in Big 12, CU Buffs seeking new conference home – The Denver Post

Like every other athletic program at Colorado, the pending move to the Big 12 Conference secures a level of financial stability into the next decade for CU women’s lacrosse.

It does, however, leave the program as homeless as its counterparts at California and Stanford.

While the Big 12 sponsors a number of sports unlikely to see the light of day in Boulder anytime soon —swimming and diving, wrestling, equestrian — the Big 12 does not sponsor women’s lacrosse.

That means by the time CU joins the Big 12 for everything else except skiing in 2024-25, the lacrosse team will need a landing spot. Athletic director Rick George confirmed to BuffZone this week that CU would likely be an affiliate member of an established conference.

“We’re actually exploring that right now, what’s best for our lacrosse team and we’ve got several options,” George said. “We’re just looking into those now.”

While CU has competed in women’s lacrosse since 2014, the Pac-12 first sponsored a conference in 2018, when the start of Arizona State’s program gave the league the requisite six teams needed for conference eligibility.

Although lacrosse has steadily gained traction in the west over the past two decades, it remains a sport dominated by the Eastern time zone, with a dearth of programs in the Big 12’s largely Midwest geographical footprint. Among the 126 Division I programs, only the six Pac-12 programs — CU, ASU, Stanford, California, USC and Oregon — plus Denver, UC Davis and San Diego State — reside west of the Mississippi River.

Cincinnati, which joins the Big 12 this year, is the only other Big 12 member with a women’s lacrosse team. Ironically, CU’s final run in the Pac-12 will be in an expanded conference, as San Diego State and UC Davis are set to join as affiliate members, pushing the league to eight teams. But with CU and ASU leaving for the Big 12, and with Oregon and USC headed to the Big Ten, the new additions will still leave the Pac-12 with just four teams, including Cal and Stanford.

Overall, the Pac-12 has struggled to gain traction against the Eastern powers. In the league’s first two seasons, the Pac-12 sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament — two in 2018 (Stanford, CU) and three in 2019 (USC, Stanford and CU). There was no tournament during the 2020 pandemic, but the past three tournaments have featured just four Pac-12 teams (Stanford in 2021; Stanford and USC in 2022; Stanford this past spring). No Pac-12 team has reached the Final Four.

Head coach Ann Elliott Whidden is the only CU coach who has won a Pac-12 regular season title in a team sport, which the Buffs claimed in the first year of the league in 2018. The Buffs lost the league championship game that year in Boulder against Stanford.

Given the uncertain status of the Pac-12’s leftovers and ASU, which is in the same boat as CU, there will be options. The western teams could align in an entirely new conference, like a revamped version of CU’s former home in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

Joining any established conference won’t produce the same geographic fit that, for the most part, will welcome CU’s other teams in the Big 12. The Big Ten is a seven-team league with Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, Maryland and affiliate member Johns Hopkins, but coupling with ASU might provide a prospective western travel partner. The Big East is a seven-team league that has teams in easy-to-reach Midwest cities (Xavier, Marquette, Butler) and also has Denver, which reached the Final Four earlier this year, as an affiliate member.

“If we play in a conference east, it’s really good for us,” George said. “We’ll still play schools in the west. It won’t change any of that. We’re just going to look out for what’s best for our lacrosse program. Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion in the next couple of months.”

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