When the Ivy League was first formed in the mid-1950s, it was a dominant conference in Division I athletics.
In recent history, however, expanding scholarship programs at large public universities have relegated the Ancient Eight to the fringes of most major sports.
But in the world of Division I men’s lacrosse, that narrative is quickly transforming.
In the latest U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Coaches’ Poll, the Ivy League has two teams ranked in the top 13 — No. 4 Cornell and No. 13 Princeton — and two squads, Harvard and Yale, receiving votes.
Penn was nationally ranked for the first two weeks of the season, but an 0-2 start quickly dropped the Quakers out of the polls.
“If you want to be a great team and be one of the best teams in the country, you have to be consistent,” coach Mike Murphy said. “[A] schedule of our caliber and playing in a league of this caliber forces you to be good on most days.”
Playing in such a strong conference is a double-edged sword for the Red and Blue.
On the one hand, Penn must navigate a minefield of opponents, many of whom are NCAA tournament bound.
And this isn’t even considering its out-of-conference opponents, who collectively constitute a veritable murderer’s row of national powerhouses.
Thus far in the young season, the Quakers (1-4, 0-1 Ivy) have played four top-20 teams, including national contenders in No. 10 Duke, No. 11 Lehigh, No. 14 Villanova and No. 15 North Carolina.
“We want to schedule the best teams we can for a lot of reasons,” Murphy said. “It helps us best prepare for the Ivy schedule.”
Such stiff competition has understandably led to a less-than-stellar record of one win in five games.
But on the other side of the coin, any success the Quakers do achieve looks that much more impressive.
“We don’t want to lose games,” Murphy said. “But with a schedule as tough as ours, if you’re above .500, you’re going to at least be considered [for the NCAA tournament].”
Indeed, Penn’s strength of schedule ranks seventh nationally. A reason for this is the reemergence of the Ivy League as a conference for top teams.
In fact, all seven Ivy schools that field a men’s lacrosse team — Columbia is the lone school that does not — have a strength of schedule among the 60 toughest in the nation, according to RPI rankings.
“Like [in] basketball and some other sports, the RPI is so important,” Murphy admitted.
Still, strength of schedule isn’t worth nearly as much when it leads to losses. And it won’t get any easier this weekend, when the Red and Blue host No. 4 Cornell.