Lacrosse semis feature veterans and rookies on opposite sides

Johns Hopkins and Maryland first faced one another on a lacrosse field in 1895. A couple of World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the disco era and '80s hair later, Denver faced Notre Dame for the first time, in 1992.

Usually when a season reaches its climax, at the final four, it's about the teams left standing, the survivors left to vie for the national title.

This weekend when the lacrosse community convenes in Philadelphia for its final four, the story will be as much about the state of the sport as it is Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Notre Dame and Denver.

No doubt lax fans are tired of hearing about the sport's growth from its niche Eastern seaboard-hugging address. The numbers show the game isn't just growing; it's booming. While participation in youth football fell 5.4 percent from 2008 to '12, according to the Physical Activity Council, it grew 158 percent in lacrosse. The game is growing so much, in fact, there's even a blog -- thegrowthblog.com -- devoted to chronicling it.

But the pinnacle of lacrosse is at the college level, as the pro game remains a very niche sport. While the sport continues to grow there, too (in an era of budget cuts and sports cuts, 92 schools have added men's lacrosse to their athletic department roster since 2009; 39 schools added men's or women's or both programs in 2014), to the common fan, it doesn't look altogether different.

That's because since the first NCAA national championship game in 1971, championships have been earned by only nine schools , stretching as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Syracuse and as far west as Virginia.

Wonder why the sport remains pigeonholed as a preppy, Eastern school, elitist game? There's your answer.

When Princeton, winner of its first national title in 1992, counts as a significant cultural shift, you've got diversity troubles.

"I think you're missing something if you don't see this as a story of where the sport is,'' Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "It's not only that us and Denver are here, but nobody is surprised we're here. I think that just shows where the sport has come, but certainly I also hope it points to where it's going.''

The truth is, college lacrosse has been going in a new direction for some time. It's enjoying a Westward Ho! campaign, only with lacrosse sticks poking out of convertible tops instead of provisions out of covered wagons.

Except at the end of every season, a same old-same old champion is crowned, and people fail to realize what's been happening.

Here's the reality: Notre Dame is making its second consecutive final four and third since 2010; Denver its fourth in five years.

Meanwhile, Hopkins hasn't been here since 2008, and the Blue Jays and the Maryland Terrapins haven't met in a national semifinal since 1995.

The Irish this year are the No. 1 seed and the Pioneers are the 4-seed; Maryland is seeded sixth and Johns Hopkins didn't even merit a top-eight spot.

That is what makes this final four so unique and, even more, so important. The intersection of the two semifinals serves as a perfect symbol of the intersection of lacrosse -- traditional blue bloods lined up on one side; upstarts on the other.

On the one side are Maryland and Hopkins. The Terrapins own two national titles and 23 final four spots; the Blue Jays have nine and 29.

But their importance to the sport stretches beyond what they do on final four weekend. Theirs is the rivalry in lacrosse, officially the oldest, even if the two schools can't quite agree on exactly how many games have been played between them. Suffice it to say, more than 100.

Though the campuses sit just 30 miles apart, the two are wildly different. One is a state school with an assortment of top athletic programs; the other is a private school known for producing two things -- doctors and lacrosse players. Hopkins, in fact, competes in Division III in everything except men's and women's lacrosse.

Back in 1934, Hopkins students, fueled by a future meeting against the Terrapins, swiped Maryland's statue of Testudo, its mascot, boldly leaving their calling card -- "J.H.U." spray-painted in blue -- in Testudo's place.

This year when the two teams met, more than 9,000 people were in attendance.

So yeah, this thing matters.

"Hopkins-Maryland, it's just something that during the year, it's always what it is," Maryland coach John Tillman said. "Great teams, talented players -- it's part of the fabric of lacrosse.''

The problem for lacrosse had been that for too long the fabric had the heft of a wool blanket. The sport was more like a private golf club, with just a handful of members exchanging the trophy.

Forget the nine teams that have won championships; up until 2010, only 12 schools had even vied for one on the sport's final weekend. The game was exciting, drawing new players by the thousands annually ... but woefully stagnant on its biggest stage.

That brings us to the other semifinal between Notre Dame and Denver. This is not quite Butler versus VCU in the 2010 college hoops national semifinal. Notre Dame doesn't exactly fit the role of scrappy underdog, and Denver coach Bill Tierney, with his six national championship rings from his days at Princeton, is neither wunderkind Brad Stevens nor plucky Shaka Smart.

But the schools are comparatively new. Denver just moved up to Division I in 1999. Notre Dame qualified for its first NCAA tournament in 1990, winning its first tournament game only in 1995.

And more, the notion of teams like the Pioneers and Irish making it this far is even newer. This is the first time that two teams from outside the traditional lacrosse belt will meet in a semifinal, and it guarantees someone new will at least have a shot at a title.

Even better, the two schools -- once members of the Great Western Lacrosse League together -- have a pretty good little rivalry of their own going these days. This year's regular-season game ended in an 11-10 overtime win for Denver, the third game out of the past five between the two to go extra periods.

"It's really interesting, when the whole tournament came out, there were a lot oohs and ahs and people talking about different things," Tierney said. "But to me it was the potential in this thing to be in the situation we're in, all of us [newcomers] on one side and the blue bloods that have been around for hundreds of years [on the other]. On Monday afternoon, there's a chance for a new team to win and a chance for one of the regulars to win, and that's good for the sport.''