Last Saturday on the campus of Hofstra University, two rivals from New Jersey earned a monumental victory for their respective programs. No. 6 Rutgers defeated No. 3 Penn 11-9 to advance to the Final Four for the first time in program history. No. 5 Princeton then defeated No. 4 Yale 14-10 to advance to their program’s first Final Four in 18 years and 11th overall.
The two schools met for the 99th time earlier this season with the Tigers winning 16-11 on their home field. Rutgers has played no other team as much as they have Princeton in program history and its the seventh longest series in college lacrosse. Although they own a record of 31-65-3, the series has been much more competitive of late with Rutgers winning two of the last five meetings.
Princeton had a dynasty from 1992-2004 in which they made ten Final Fours and won six national championships. The program is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 under fourth year head coach Matt Madalon. Rutgers hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 30 years before earning a bid last season and advancing to the Quarterfinals for just the seventh time in program history.
The rise of both programs at the same time has put a spotlight on New Jersey lacrossem in way like never before for Championship Weekend.
Both programs are linked forever not just by the close proximity between campuses, which are 21 miles apart, but with their origin stories as well. Harland “Tots” Meistrell is credited with restarting lacrosse programs at both schools in the early 1920’s. Rutgers and Princeton play for the Meistrell Cup, named after the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Famer.
Lacrosse is very popular among youth and high school leagues across New Jersey and has grown a lot over the last decade. Having both programs taking part in Championship Weekend on the sport’s biggest stage is a great moment for the state.
“I think it is great for New Jersey,” said Rutgers head coach Brian Brecht about both programs advancing to the Final Four during the NCAA’s press conference with each team on Tuesday. “The youth and high school participation numbers have been going through the roof over the last 5, 10 years. Lacrosse is at its highest it has ever been.”
“We couldn’t be more proud,” said Madalon after also being asked about both teams making it to Championship Weekend. “Brian Brecht has done an outstanding job with his program. We actually used to play a midweek game and we both agreed to move it to a weekend to continue to highlight New Jersey lacrosse and two premier programs in the state.”
Brecht emphasized the importance of the sport locally in driving attendance for Rutgers during the season. “We have always had great fans. Our alumni have been great. The youth and high school players come for our regular season and Big Ten games and then for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, having 5,000 plus on campus to see the game.”
Madalon said interest in the sport is so high that there has been discussion regarding holding an event that includes all four Division I programs in the state. “With Monmouth and NJIT as well. we’ve even spoke about a four-way tournament like they did with some of those Long Island teams.”
Perhaps it will become a reality sooner rather than later now that both Rutgers and Princeton are fighting for national title on Memorial Day Weekend. Heading to the Jersey shore to kickoff the summer is a longtime tradition in the garden state. Rooting for both programs to play in the Final Four every year is no longer a fairytale.
”Just really proud of both programs,” Madalon said. “Obviously with coach Mitchell on our staff, a former Rutgers guy. I know he is pretty proud for those guys too.”
As if the two programs didn’t have enough ties, current Princeton assistant Jim Mitchell was the offensive coordinator for Rutgers from 2015-2018. The Scarlet Knights had a top 25 offense all four seasons that Mitchell was on the banks and just missed making the NCAA Tournament for three straight years. He has served in the same role for Princeton since 2020.
“I am certainly excited for the sport of lacrosse in New Jersey,” said Brecht. “Obviously having two teams from the state of New Jersey in the Final Four. I think it just gets the excitement and the juices flowing even more for the young players that continue having fun playing the game that they love.”
On Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, both programs will play for the opportunity to win the national title two days later. While Princeton are big underdogs against undefeated and No. 1 Maryland (-6.5), Rutgers is a slight favorite (-1.5) against Cornell. For now, New Jersey lacrosse fans are hoping for a dream matchup on Memorial Day with everything on the line. As if fate is calling, it would be the 100th all-time meeting between the two programs.
Even if it doesn’t happen, lacrosse fans tuning into ESPN2 on Saturday afternoon will be forced to learn anything and everything about Rutgers and Princeton. That means New Jersey wins by having its two schools being represented so prominently, regardless of the final score in either game. And while both sides want a victory on the field, you could argue the long term benefit of playing in the Final Four together at the same time means they have already won off the field across the state and the sport itself.