TOWSON, Md. -- This weekend's Division I women's lacrosse tournament in Towson features a lot of familiar faces. That's the way it usually is at the women's lacrosse final four.
Three of last year's semifinalists return: five-time defending champion Northwestern, Maryland and North Carolina. The "newcomer" is Syracuse, but the Orange isn't all that new. It was a semifinalist once before, in 2008.
In a sport that is growing rapidly at the college level -- nearly tripling the number of Division I programs in 20 years -- and is getting more competitive all the time, that parity has not shown up at the top very quickly.
Only four programs have won national championships in the past 19 years, even though the number of NCAA Division I teams has grown from 36 to 91 since 1990. Maryland has eight of those 19 titles, including seven straight from 1995 to 2001. Northwestern has five; Virginia and Princeton, three each.
Newcomers are rare to the Division I final four, too. Since the tournament expanded to 16 teams with automatic qualifiers in 2001, only seven programs, including Northwestern and Syracuse, have debuted in the semifinals. In 28 years of NCAA championships, only 16 programs have played in the title game. Including this year's semifinalists, 22 have reached the final four.
Coaches often talk about parity in the sport, and it is certainly there, but mostly in a logjam just below a top 15 or 20 that has been tough to break into and a top five or six that has been even tougher to crack.
"It reminds me of when I think we were winning our third (national championship) in a row," former Maryland coach Cindy Timchal said. "They said there was more parity and we went on to win four more."
Most coaches can't explain why so few teams have dominated the finals other than that they had the right combination of athletes and coaches who were prepared and driven physically and psychologically to win.
Timchal, the sport's all-time winningest college coach, is trying to translate her success at Maryland to the Naval Academy. This spring, Navy and Marist became only the sixth and seventh teams in six years to make the NCAA tournament for the first time, the Midshipmen in only their third season as a varsity program.
"We talk about the parity, the growth of women's lacrosse, the great programs that have added -- programs that are traditionally strong (in many sports) like the University of Florida -- so you're looking at these schools and the programs who are knocking at the door every year," Timchal said. "I think at the end of the day, it's about the ability to get some of those top recruits in and ultimately once you get to the final four, truly believing you can beat your opponent."
While Timchal and Northwestern's Kelly Amonte Hiller excel at innovative coaching and recruiting styles that have changed the game, they also instill a confidence in their players that seems to grow with each title and perpetuate their success. They've forced everyone else to play catch-up.
"It's just so darn hard to win," Virginia coach Julie Myers said, "so I give Maryland and Northwestern a ton of credit not only for doing it once, but for winning year after year. Those kids just really want to win, so when push comes to shove, their kids consistently step up."
North Carolina and Northwestern once were prime examples of the parity spreading through Division I. The Tar Heels reached the final four in their second season, 1997. Northwestern made it in its third year, 2004, and won a year later, becoming the first champion from west of the Mississippi. Now they're both part of the establishment.
Looking for the next program likely to achieve quick success, Timchal isn't the only one pointing to Florida, which just completed a 10-8 inaugural season. But with the sport booming on the high school level, a burgeoning talent pool might fuel more final four candidates from new programs and those that have been around awhile.
Lacrosse is the fastest-growing high school sport for girls -- up 208 percent in 10 years -- according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and the Carolinas recently have sanctioned state championships.
Top college coaches already are looking in those and other areas well outside the traditional Northeast box. Amonte Hiller has players from Ohio, Illinois and Texas, and Maryland coach Cathy Reese, who spent three years as coach at Denver, has three from California.
When North Carolina coach Jenny Levy and Duke coach Kerstin Kimel started their programs, they had to help build lacrosse at the high school and club levels around Chapel Hill and Durham. Having high school soccer season in the spring made that quite a challenge.
People transplanted from the northern hotbeds, "which is a good amount of people ... are very frustrated about the level of lacrosse in North Carolina, although it's grown a lot," Levy said. "When we first started 15 years ago, there was no high school lacrosse. Now there are over 58 varsity programs in North Carolina."
Monmouth coach Denise Wescott, a college head coach for 21 years, said talented players from nontraditional areas will keep filtering into the top colleges but also the up-and-coming programs.
"College coaches are starting to pull from Texas and Florida more. In California and Colorado, those kids are getting more looks. As the clubs get stronger, there will be more kids to draw from," Wescott said.
"My guess would be in the next five or six years, you're going to see other (college) programs jump in just because there's going to be more talent all over the country. That talent will spread out. We're young still as far as growth. I think as we continue to add teams on the high school level and the club level (parity will rise), because there's going to be more talent for more coaches to go after."