The Trifecta

There is a very exclusive club in the NCAA, one with only 35 members out of thousands of possibilities. Just a touch above one-quarter of one percent of all the candidates which field a team sport are part of this list.

Who qualifies for this rare membership?

Simple. It consists of schools which have participated in the NCAA playoffs at all three levels — Division I, Division II, and Division III.

It may be easy to state, but it’s hardly ever been done.

Men’s Ice Hockey, thanks to the limited number of schools that field the sport, has the highest percentage of teams that have performed this feat. It includes three teams for 2.19%, the only sport above one percent.

A fourth hockey team was nearly added to this list in 2008. RIT competed in postseason play this year for the first time at Division I, making it to the Atlantic Hockey Final Five. However, the Tigers did not win the league tournament, and thus did not get the automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs, and therefore did not complete their trifecta.

The main reason hockey teams have been able to do this is the way the sport has been structured over the years. Before 1984, most non-Division I hockey teams competed at the Division II level. A few teams stayed in Division III, such as the teams in the ECAC North, Central, and South conferences (now known as the ECAC Northeast), but they did not compete for a national championship.

Then, the NCAA stated that all teams competing at Division II must play at the level at which the entire school was designated. All of those Division III schools were then forced to play at the Division III level in hockey, and an appropriate championship was held starting in 1984.

Because hockey is a sport in which a number of schools have chosen to move up to Division I, over the years, a number of schools which previously played at Division II, then at Division III, are now in Division I.

Thus, when two of these schools eventually made the Division I NCAA playoffs, they had also competed in the playoffs at the two lower divisions. They are Bemidji State and Minnesota State (formerly Mankato State). Mercyhurst bounced around as it was eligible to compete in Division III, then had to play at the school’s level (Division II) before moving the hockey program up to Division I. RIT can be the fourth team on this list one day.

Men’s lacrosse went through a similar history, which is how one more team makes the list. It happens to be the most successful lacrosse team ever in terms of sheer number of championships.

Hobart competed in Division II and twice won the national title in 1976 and 1977. Then, when teams were forced to play in the division of their school’s designation, Hobart won the first 12 Division III national championships from 1980 through 1991. For good measure, the Statesmen won a lucky 13th in 1993. Soon afterwards, Hobart elevated its lacrosse program to Division I, where it has made the playoffs four times, though Hobart has yet to win a national Division I postseason game.

Most of the teams that make this list did so because they are from longstanding sports, such as basketball and soccer. At one time, there were no divisions in the NCAA, so everybody competed in what is now known as Division I. The bigger, richer schools dominated, but occasionally a smaller school could crack the elite.

Thus, when Division II was formed and later Division III, smaller schools joined these new divisions, which were better aligned with their school’s athletic philosophy. A few were successful through the transitions, making the playoffs at each level. In some cases it was a matter of being good at just the right window as some spent just a few years in Division II.

The last way that schools tended to make this list was a simple case of a small school either expanding its athletic department and/or the school itself grew and wanted to take athletics with it to a larger, more expensive challenge.

Again, when these teams were successful at each level, they were provided an opportunity to accomplish this feat. The four State University of New York centers (Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook) are perfect examples of this. The move up was gradual, so they stopped in Division II for a while before ending up in Division I. Thus, these schools have a number of teams that are either on the list or are just one playoff qualification away from making it (see sidebar).

Women’s sports hardly make this list simply because many of their NCAA-sanctioned championships didn’t start until 1982. There just hasn’t been much time for movement between the divisions. Nonetheless, two teams have qualified (by opposite means — one moving upwards, the other downwards) and four others are close.

When developing this list, only sports where whole teams are invited to postseason NCAA competition were counted. The obvious team sports were included, but so were a few “individual” sports because the championships are set up for whole teams to compete, and they go through the same automatic berths and at-large bids as any other team sport.

These included Cross Country (men and women), Golf (men and women), and Tennis (men and women). Any sport that only had one championship for all three divisions was obviously not considered. Women’s Ice Hockey was not counted because it never had a Division II national championship.

Of all sports counted as of September 1, 2007, there were 6,120 men’s teams fielded and 6,910 women’s teams, for a total of 13,030 teams. Thirty-three men’s teams made this club (0.54%) and just two women’s teams (0.03%) for a total of 35 (0.27%). Keep in mind that this doesn’t count schools that no longer field certain teams or schools closing their doors over the years. Thus, the percentages in reality are even smaller.

Exclusive indeed.

Even rarer are teams that are in a position to win a national championship in all three divisions. It has never been done.

Just four teams have won national championships in their previous two divisions, but have not yet done so in their current division. Two of those four are hockey teams. Interestingly, two of the four aren’t even among the 35 teams on the above-mentioned list.

The two hockey teams are Bemidji State (five-time Division II champions, 1976 Division III champion) and RIT (which won the Division II national title in the last year of teams playing up, 1983, and took the 1985 Division III crown). The other two teams are the aforementioned Hobart Men’s Lacrosse team and the Lock Haven Field Hockey squad (five-time Division II national titleholders and the 1989 Division III champion).

Lock Haven is currently competing in Division I, where it has qualified the past two years for a special play-in game, but it doesn’t count on the NCAA’s official list of postseason participation, and thus Lock Haven is not on the larger list.

This is the same reason St. Cloud State does not make the Men’s Ice Hockey list despite competing in the Division I and Division III playoffs. Though they once competed in what is termed the Western Division II Playoffs, they are also not counted towards the NCAA’s official list of postseason play.

The closest anyone has come to pulling off this (so far) impossible feat is a team that won’t be able to now. The Cortland Men’s Lacrosse team came within two victories of this amazing feat.

They started out at Division I, and made the second-ever NCAA Lacrosse championship in 1972. In the eight-team field, they defeated Navy, 10-9, in double overtime. They lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Virginia, 14-7. There was no consolation game, so they were awarded third place.

When Division II was formed, they joined and won the title in 1975. They followed the formation of Division III and eventually won that title in 2006. It is doubtful Cortland will ever consider moving its lacrosse team back to Division I — but if only they had won two more games back in 1972 …

Here are the 35 teams who belong to the club, in alphabetical order:

Albany (N.Y.) Men’s Basketball
Albion Men’s Cross Country
Amherst Men’s Golf
Ashland Baseball
Bemidji Men’s Hockey (five-time Division II champions, 1986 Division III champion)
Binghamton Men’s Tennis
Brockport Men’s Soccer (1974 Division III national champion)
Catholic Men’s Basketball (2001 Division III national champion)
CCNY Men’s Basketball (the only team ever to win the NCAA and NIT in the same year — 1950)
U. of Chicago Men’s Basketball
Cortland Men’s Lacrosse (1975 Division II champion, 2006 Division III champion)
Denison Men’s Golf
Grinnell Men’s Cross Country
Hobart Men’s Lacrosse (1976-77 Division II champions, 13-time Division III champions)
Ithaca Baseball (1958 Division II runner-up)
Keene St. Women’s Soccer (1989-90 Division II runner-ups)
Kenyon Men’s Golf
Knox Men’s Golf
Lebanon Valley Men’s Basketball (1994 Division III champion)
Mercyhurst Men’s Hockey
Minnesota St. Men’s Hockey (1980 Division II champion, 1991 Division III runner-up)
Monmouth Men’s Basketball
Montclair St. Men’s Soccer
UNC Greensboro Men’s Soccer (5-time Division III champions, 1989 Division II runner-up)
UNC Greensboro Women’s Basketball (1982 Division III runner-up)
Ohio Wesleyan Men’s Cross Country
Ohio Wesleyan Men’s Golf (competed in Division III playoffs 27 times, best finish was second in 1990 and 1993)
Springfield Men’s Basketball
Springfield Men’s Soccer (1989 Division II runner-up)
Trinity (Tex.) Men’s Basketball
Wheaton (Ill.) Men’s Cross Country
Williams Men’s Basketball (2003 Division III champion)
Williams Men’s Golf (1958 Division I runner-up)
Wis.-Milwaukee Men’s Basketball
WPI Men’s Soccer

Author’s Note: I spent a considerable amount of time researching this subject. However, there could be mistakes or teams that I missed. If you spot any, please write to me, as I plan on keeping these lists as accurate and updated as possible. Thank you.