Explaining conference realignment

    Sometimes we take it for granted.

    Northwestern's football team has played in the Big Ten since the conference's inception in 1896; ditto for the basketball team dating back to 1906.

    For years – since 2002, to be precise – Northwestern lacrosse played its games in the women's-only American Lacrosse Conference, which included Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida, Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins. But in June 2013, the Big Ten announced it would finally adopt both men's and women's lacrosse as an official sport starting in 2015, effectively ending the ALC by switching four of the conference's seven teams to the Big Ten. (Florida and Vanderbilt moved to the Big East Conference, while Johns Hopkins went independent.)

    Already, Northwestern is feeling the benefits of the conference realignment during its first Big Ten season. The lacrosse program's heightened visibility as a result of the change is just one of the advantages, according to head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who has already met with other coaches several times at the Big Ten offices.

    "We've seen the TV coverage [that's] going to be happening – you know, the Big Ten Game of the Week on Thursday nights, plus additional coverage of some games around the league," Amonte Hiller said. "Just the media promotion, I think it's really exciting."

    Adding men's and women's lacrosse to the Big Ten would have been almost unthinkable back in 2002, when Northwestern lacrosse played its first official season after a nine-year layoff. But the Wildcats' success – seven national championships in an eight-year span – has played a large role in bringing the sport to the Midwest, which Amonte Hiller told Crain's Chicago Business in 2013 was "one of my goals when I came to NU."

    The youth leagues that have been popping up around the area, along with the addition of lacrosse to the Big Ten, each reflect her success in doing so.

    "The best part of it is just going to be the competition and the teams we play," Amonte Hiller said of the realignment. "I think our league is very strong."

    Northwestern lacrosse's schedule is difficult every year, and 2015 is no exception. This year's regular season schedule includes 11 games against opponents ranked in the Top 20 or higher in the IWLCA coaches poll, including the top three teams.

    During the ALC's final season, Northwestern posted a 3-3 in-conference record, the team's worst showing since 2003. That was a sharp contrast to the six-year span from 2005 to 2010, when Northwestern went undefeated in 35 games in the ALC. One of last year’s losses came against Florida, who Northwestern has played in every season since the Gators formed their program in 2010.

    The rivalry the two sides have developed – Florida is 6-4 all-time against Northwestern – could be coming to a close with the two teams moving to separate conferences.

    "It's been a great rivalry within a league that's become a great tradition," said Florida head coach Amanda O'Leary. "I certainly will miss that game, and our players will as well."

    As Amonte Hiller points out, however, just because Florida isn't on the regular season schedule doesn't mean Northwestern won't face the Gators sometime this season.

    "I don't necessarily know that we're losing that rivalry," she said. "We don't have them on our schedule this year, but that doesn't mean we're not going to play them."

    In each of the last four seasons, Northwestern has run into Florida in the playoffs during either the American Lacrosse Conference Championship or the NCAA Tournament – or, in the case of last season, both. Though the Gators got the better of Amonte Hiller's squad in each of the first two meetings in 2014 – once during the regular season and once in the ALC Championship – the 'Cats came away with an overtime victory in the quarterfinals of the tournament. There's a decent chance the two teams will have a rematch of sorts this season.

    "Florida's an incredible program and they're going to be really strong this year. At some point, we may meet them and rekindle that rivalry," Amonte Hiller said. "But we're excited about the teams that are coming in and just can't wait to get that going."


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