College lacrosse is played by student-athletes at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. In both countries, men's field lacrosse and women's lacrosse are played at both the varsity and club levels. College lacrosse in Canada is sponsored by the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA) and Maritime University Field Lacrosse League (MUFLL), while in the United States, varsity men's and women's lacrosse is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). There are also university lacrosse programs in the United Kingdom sponsored by British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) and programs in Japan.
In the U.S., as of the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 71 NCAA-sanctioned Division I men's lacrosse teams, 61 Division II men's lacrosse teams and 236 Division III men's lacrosse teams. There are 112 Division I women's lacrosse teams, 105 Division II women's lacrosse teams, and 282 Division III women's lacrosse teams. There were also 27 men's programs and 16 women's programs at two-year community colleges organized by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) and a growing number of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) four-year small college programs.
As of 2016-2017, there were 184 collegiate men's club teams competing through the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA), including most major universities in the United States without NCAA men's programs, organized into two divisions and ten conferences. Schools that feature a NCAA Division I FBS football team must play in Division 1, while most other teams compete in Division 2. There are 225 collegiate club teams for women organized by the Women's Collegiate Lacrosse Associates (WCLA).
The first intercollegiate game in the United States was played on November 22, 1877 between New York University and Manhattan College. Lacrosse had been introduced in upstate New York in the 1860s. Lacrosse was further introduced to the Baltimore area in the 1890s. These two areas continue to be hotbeds of college lacrosse in the U.S. An organizing body for the sport, the U. S. National Amateur Lacrosse Association, was founded in 1879. The first intercollegiate lacrosse tournament was held in 1881, with Harvard beating Princeton, 3-0, in the championship game. New York University and Columbia University also participated. In 1882 three colleges formed a league called the Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (ILA), which four other colleges soon joined. From this point through 1931, collegiate lacrosse associations chose an annual champion based on season records. In 1894, the Inter-University Lacrosse League (IULL) began play using slightly different rules.
The two leagues merged in December, 1905, to form the 8-team United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse League. The USILL was a closed-membership league, which excluded several lacrosse powers, such as the U.S. Naval Academy. The national championship was officially bestowed only upon teams that were included in the membership of these organizations. In 1912, the USILL established Northern and Southern Divisions and began conducting a post-season playoff. Harvard defeated Swarthmore, 7-3, in the first formal playoff. This system continued through 1925. As Navy was not a member of the USILL, its teams were not eligible for the championship, even though Navy had the best collegiate record in many of those years. Navy was undefeated from 1917 through 1923, a stretch of 40 games with one tie.
The USILL was replaced by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association in March, 1926, as an open-membership governing body. Six more teams became new USILA members, in addition to the former USILL teams. The USILA bestowed gold medals upon the teams that it selected as national champions through the 1931 season. No official champions were named from 1932 through 1935. In 1936, an award was established in the memory of a Baltimore sportswriter to recognize annually the most outstanding teams. From 1936 through 1972, the USILA executive board awarded the Wingate Memorial Trophy to the national champions.
From at least 1951, if not earlier, lacrosse divisions were officially named after legendary lacrosse-men. These were the Cy Miller, Laurie D. Cox, and Roy Taylor Divisions. They were more commonly referred to Division I, or A; Division II, or B; and Division III, or C. All college teams were placed in one of the three divisions, dependent upon their records, schedules, and success for the preceding five years, and a point system was created. Any team of the three divisions was eligible to win the national championship, but this was virtually impossible for non-Division I teams. A Division II team, playing several Division I teams, might have been able to achieve it. A team's record was required to include six games against teams in its own division. Teams were realigned every three years, again reflecting their records. All schools were eligible for the national rankings. The team that achieved the highest point total each year, however, was not guaranteed a solo national championship. The system served as guidance to the USILA executive board, who chose co-champions on frequent occasions. This point system prevailed with modifications until the NCAA in the early 1970s established the playoff system for determining champions.
At its 1969 annual meeting in Baltimore, the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association voted for its first playoff tournament to determine a national champion. In 1971, the NCAA began sponsoring men's lacrosse and began holding an annual championship tournament for Division I schools. The USILA conducted a small college tournament for non-Division I schools in 1972 and 1973. In 1974, the NCAA took over the sponsorship of this tournament through the 1979 season, with separate tournaments being conducted in both 1980 and 1981 for Divisions II and III teams. The Division II tournament then was discontinued until returning in 1993.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the largest association and governing body of collegiate athletics in the United States. The NCAA holds lacrosse championships for all three Divisions in men's and women's lacrosse. Currently the NCAA has 368 men's lacrosse programs and 499 women's lacrosse programs.
In the upcoming 2018 NCAA lacrosse season, there will be 71 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse teams, with 68 of them organized into 10 conferences, and three teams playing as independent D-I programs without a conference affiliation. These teams are heavily concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and only three teams are not in the Eastern Time Zone.
From 1936 through 1970 the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) selected the Wingate Memorial Trophy winners as national champions based on regular season records. Beginning in 1971, the National Collegiate Athletic Association began holding an annual championship tournament.
The most recent changes to men's lacrosse conferences occurred in the 2014 off-season. The Big Ten Conference sponsored the sport for the first time in 2015. The Big Ten move, along with other changes stemming from the early-2010s NCAA conference realignment, led to the demise of ECAC Lacrosse. The Southern Conference (SoCon) took over men's lacrosse sponsorship from the Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN), which itself had only added the sport for the 2013-14 school year. This was a friendly takeover, as the two conferences had agreed in January 2014 to form a lacrosse alliance under which they would divide lacrosse sponsorship, with men's shifting to the SoCon and women's remaining with the ASUN.
The next schools confirmed to be adding men's lacrosse are St. Bonaventure and Utah, both of which will elevate existing club teams to varsity status in the 2019 season (2018-19 school year).
Division II men's lacrosse currently has the smallest number of teams compared to the Division I and Division III levels. Division II lacrosse is made up of 61 teams mainly located in the Northeast and Southeast. The USILA conducted a "small college" lacrosse championship tournament in 1972 and 1973. Division II men's lacrosse held its first NCAA tournament in 1974 with an eight-team bracket. The format remained the same until 1980, when the field dropped to just two teams as the Division III tournament was inaugurated. From 1982 through 1992, a Division II playoff was not conducted. In 2001, a four-team bracket was instituted. The Division II men's lacrosse championship bracket expanded from four to eight teams starting with the 2013 season.Adelphi University currently holds the record for the number of D-II championships, with seven and also appeared in the championship a record 11 times.
NCAA Division II lacrosse programs are organized into eight conferences, as well as independent programs consisting of mainly new D-II lacrosse teams. The newest addition to the roster of Division II men's lacrosse conferences came in 2017-18 when the Great Lakes Valley Conference began sponsoring men's lacrosse.
On December 2, 2014; the University of Alabama In Huntsville (UAH) announced the additional of Men's and Women's Lacrosse programs. These programs began competition with the 2016 season, initially as independents.
The majority of schools playing NCAA men's lacrosse play in Division III, with 236 in all. Most Division III lacrosse teams are located in the Northeast, with only seven programs west of the Mississippi River. The USILA conducted a "small college" championship in 1972 and 1973. The NCAA Division III championship originally was combined with Division II from 1974-1979, before the NCAA split the non-Division I schools into separate Division II and III tournaments in 1980.Hobart has made a record 14 appearances in the championship game and won a total of 13 championships. Hobart lacrosse also won the championship the first 12 years it was held from 1980-1991. The 12 consecutive championships are an NCAA record.
NCAA Division III lacrosse programs are organized into 24 conferences and over 20 independent programs.
Women's college lacrosse differs significantly from men's lacrosse in terms of rules and equipment. The NCAA holds lacrosse championships for all three divisions and currently has 375 women's lacrosse programs. Women's collegiate lacrosse was originally governed by the U.S. Women's Lacrosse Association, which joined with the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to determine an annual champion. The USWLA and AIAW conducted championships from 1978-1982 before being usurped by the NCAA. The NCAA began sponsoring a Division III championship in 1985 and added a Division II championship in 2001.
The NCAA began sponsoring a women's lacrosse championship in 1982. Lacrosse has grown into over 100 NCAA Division I women's lacrosse teams organized into 15 conferences and a number of programs that play without a conference affiliation. Only 13 programs are located outside the Eastern Time Zone--Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Denver, six Pac-12 Conference members, and four California schools outside the Pac-12. Of these 13 schools, only Denver also sponsors varsity men's lacrosse.
The most recent change to the lineup of women's lacrosse conferences came in July 2017, when the Pac-12 and Southern Conference (SoCon) began sponsoring women's lacrosse effective with the 2018 season. The Pac-12 added the sport once Arizona State upgraded its club team to full varsity status, giving that league the six varsity teams needed for official conference sponsorship (and also the number required for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament). The SoCon amicably ended its full partnership with the ASUN Conference in women's lacrosse after full SoCon member Wofford upgraded a club team to varsity status. This gave the SoCon only three full members with varsity programs, but ASUN lacrosse associates Central Michigan, Delaware State, and Detroit also moved to the new SoCon lacrosse league. The ASUN retained its automatic NCAA tournament bid since it still had six members. The two leagues retain a cross-scheduling agreement for non-conference games. The next change to the women's conference lineup will come for the 2019 season, when the American Athletic Conference adds the sport.
Two other schools elevated their club teams to varsity status for the 2018 season, and another school which did not sponsor lacrosse even at the club level will add the sport for the 2019 season. East Carolina and Hartford, both of which had club teams, will begin varsity play in 2018; Kent State, without a club team, will begin varsity play in 2019. East Carolina, a member of The American, will play as an independent in 2018 and then join The American's new women's lacrosse league. Hartford joined its all-sports league, the America East Conference. Kent State will play lacrosse in the ASUN.
There are 89 programs competing at the Division II level. Division II women's lacrosse is one of the newest championships sponsored by the NCAA. The first Division II women's lacrosse championship was held in 2001, when C.W. Post beat West Chester 13-9. Since then, the Division II level has been dominated, much like its men's counterpart, by Adelphi University. Through 2014, Adelphi women's lacrosse won six national championships. However, as of 2016, the national title belongs to Florida Southern College.
The 89 NCAA Division II women's lacrosse programs are organized into nine conferences, as well as independent programs.
The NCAA Division III level is made up of 216 women's lacrosse teams. It is the largest women's lacrosse division and also the largest NCAA lacrosse division, surpassing the number of men's Division III teams by about 30 members.
As of October, 2016, There are a 39 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) schools that offer men's and/or women's varsity lacrosse, Lacrosse is an officially recognized sport by the NAIA. NAIA programs are currently in year two of NAIA invitational sport status. During this phase of recognition, teams compete to participate in a post season championship called the NAIA National Invitational. Each conference and A.I.I group receive one automatic qualifier with the remaining four bids going to the highest remaining teams from the NAIA national ranking. NAIA programs also regularly compete against NCAA DII and DIII teams. The Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) announced on January 27, 2012, the addition of lacrosse for both men and women as conference sports effective the fall of 2012. The WHAC was the first conference in the NAIA to offer lacrosse as a conference championship sport. The Appalachian Athletics Conference and the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference recognized lacrosse as a conference sport in the Fall of 2015.
The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) is the primary governing body of community college athletic programs in the USA and currently oversees 28 men's and 17 women's lacrosse programs predominately in the Northeastern United States. The NJCAA lacrosse programs do not compete in their regular conferences, but instead are ranked within their NJCAA Regions. The NJCAA has sponsored a men's lacrosse championship since 1970 and a women's lacrosse championship since 2004. There are also new lacrosse programs at community colleges that are not members of the NJCAA, such as the California Community College Athletic Association, which does not sponsor the sport at this time.
The Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA), formerly known as the US Lacrosse Men's Division of Intercollegiate Associates (USL MDIA), is a national organization of non-NCAA, college men's lacrosse programs. The MCLA was created by the MDIA Board of Directors and its creation was announced by US Lacrosse on August 24, 2006. The MCLA oversees play and conducts national championships for 184 non-NCAA men's lacrosse programs in 10 conferences and in two divisions throughout the country.
The National College Lacrosse League (NCLL) is a men's lacrosse league comprising mostly Eastern US college lacrosse clubs (non-varsity). There are approximately 130 teams divided into 12 conferences. The programs are split into Division I and Division II. Many of the clubs are at schools that currently have varsity NCAA Men's lacrosse programs.
The Women's Collegiate Lacrosse Associates (WCLA) is a collection of over 260 college club teams that compete under the US Lacrosse umbrella. Teams are organized into various leagues and two divisions. The association regulates different aspects of the teams, including minimum number of games played. A recent rule modification allows community colleges to become members. Teams that have been classified as either Division I or Division II have the opportunity to compete in a national championship each spring under US Lacrosse.