The title of “champion” often instills a sense of excitement, passion and determination in athletic teams competing in major tournaments.

With the new final four tournament approved by the Eastern College Athletic Conference Lacrosse League for 2011, the winner will not only earn the title of league champion, but also an automatic bid to the Division I NCAA Tournament.

ECAC Commissioner Rudy Keeling announced that after a majority league vote at the ECAC convention meeting from last summer, the inaugural championship tournament will run May 6 through 8, 2011.

This year, Ohio State joined the league along with Denver, Air Force, Quinnipiac and Bellarmine universities. Hobart College and Loyola University in Maryland joined in 2005 and Fairfield University in 2006.

Initially undecided between 2011 or 2012, league representatives and ECAC committee members dubbed ‘11 as the more opportune time to start the tournament, Keeling said.

“We were [originally] waiting for ESPN to see what kind of package they could get,” Keeling said about the decision. “Because it was the middle of football season, we didn’t get the response we wanted from them.”

The motivation for the tournament stems from a desire to promote teams within the league and qualify more teams for the NCAA Tournament each year.

“We feel… that we have a strong league. We want to enhance our teams’ chances of getting more than our automatic qualifying team into the NCAA tournament,” Keeling said. “And to do that we thought if we played a league tournament we had a better chance of improving our power rating and also coming up with a second team that might make it to the NCAA Tournament.”

Keeling said “it’s an opportune time” to brand the league and get together the best teams for public exposure. Having scores and games broadcast, along with the pull of a tournament crowd, would help make the league “more nationally known,” he said.

For a school like OSU, exposure of its men’s program will help generate a larger national reputation and solidify its rank among the elite.

U.S. Lacrosse President and CEO Steve Stenersen said the benefit of the tournament will provide dual incentives for U.S. Lacrosse and OSU.

“I think Ohio State just in being Ohio State… being a good lacrosse program, will enhance our league,” Stenersen said. “And our league is one of the better leagues in the country, so we will enhance the Ohio State lacrosse brand. I think both entities bring something to the table.”

Stenersen said since the NCAA went to automatic qualifiers, league play has meant a lot to teams across the country.

Although initially an unpopular decision, it was a “visionary and strategic step” that enabled an opportunity for schools that otherwise would not have made it to the tournament as quickly or at all, Stenersen said.

Qualifiers “will allow schools that were not part of the rich… to shoot for something. They’ll really have something to play for,” Stenersen said about teams that are not big-name lacrosse schools like Syracuse or Johns Hopkins.

Denver University coach Bill Tierney said with a limit of about 17 contests, from scrimmages to fall ball to season games, the tournament will also help with strength of schedule and power-ranking levels.

“What the tournaments do, they actually give you two extra games. If you win the first one, they give you two extra games against good opponents,” Tierney said. “So even if you lose the second one, it gives you more strength of schedule and rating percentage index points.”

For teams that play early in the year and lose, their chance of winning is significantly decreased without a tournament.
“[If] you don’t have a chance in winning your league because you don’t have a strong enough schedule, you’re not going to get into the NCAA Tournament,” Tierney said. “It’s almost like by the end of March some teams knew they were done with. So with having a league tournament it gives them a second time to play that team another time.”

He said that the ECAC tournament is a second chance to get a shot at that automatic qualifier for some teams who normally would not get the chance.

“Bellarmine doesn’t have to beat Virginia or Syracuse or Hopkins, or more historically dominant teams. All they need to do is win it in their league championship,” Stenersen said. “That breathes life into a program.”

Stenersen also believes the league and the new tournament help promote the game of lacrosse more effectively.

“It creates another great opportunity to showcase a high level of the sport in another zip code in the country,” Stenersen said. “So from a promotional standpoint, it’s terrific.”

With non-revenue sports at risk at Division I football colleges due to budget cuts and Title IX requirements, some varsity lacrosse teams across the country have been downgraded to club level or eliminated all together, Stenersen said.

“When you’re a big time football school in this day and age, you’re usually not looking for more large men’s team sports opportunities to elevate to varsity,” Stenersen said. “What you’re looking to do is you’re looking for more women’s sports opportunities to bring your ratio of athletic opportunities to where it needs to be.”

Stenersen credited OSU’s athletic program for being a leader in managing women’s opportunities and maintaining a multitude of varsity programs.

“They weren’t one of the institutions that took the easy way out and axed men’s sports to fund women’s sports,” Stenersen said. “It really is a shot in the arm for D1 men’s lacrosse when athletic budgets continue to be strained and lacrosse programs are demoted.”

Keeling said the league is excited to have OSU this year, along with the other four teams, because it helped expand the borders of the league.

“The ECAC this year is probably the most geographically diverse [league],” Stenersen said. “It has teams all the way from Connecticut to Colorado.”

The school that places first in the 2010 ECAC Lacrosse League will earn the right to host the 2011 inaugural tournament. The site of the 2012 tournament will be determined through a bid process.

The NCAA will still invite the top 16 teams from Division I programs to make up the championship tournament each year. The regular season winners who may fare poorly in a conference tournament typically receive one of the 16 NCAA bids.

But for the schools outside of traditional lacrosse dynasties, the new league tournament will be an opportunity to compete with the best of the best.