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Northwestern vs. Maryland lacrosse: It doesn't get much bigger than this

In the first ever Big Ten lacrosse game, the two most decorated programs in the sport will square off Thursday in Evanston.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the most storied programs in the history of women's lacrosse will play each other Thursday for only the second time ever in the regular season when Northwestern faces Maryland. But that's not the only reason it's an historic occasion.

The game (6 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network) marks the beginning of a new era in college lacrosse, on both the men's side and the women's side. It's the first ever Big Ten lacrosse game, men or women, and it officially inaugurates the Big Ten as a lacrosse conference. And furthermore, the conference couldn't have picked a bigger matchup as the curtain raiser.

Maryland is generally thought of as the premier women's lacrosse program in the country and, indeed, the Terrapins have won 12 national championships in their history, the most of any program. Other records they hold: most NCAA tournament appearances, most tournament games won and most NCAA championship game appearances. The roots of the Maryland program extend throughout the game, with all but one of the head coaches in the new Big Ten having played for the Terps.

While Maryland remains the gold standard though, Kelly Amonte Hiller, a two-time national champion at Maryland as a player, has built a behemoth in the Midwest. Northwestern has won seven of the past 10 championships and finished as the runner-up in one of the three years they did not win it all. In only her fourth season at the program, resurrecting a program that had not competed at the varsity level in over ten years, she led the Wildcats to an undefeated season, culminating in the first championship won by a school outside of the Eastern time zone. In 2011, ESPN The Magazine named her as one of the 20 best recruiters across all college sports, putting her on the same list as Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Duke head basketball coach.

So it is only fitting that the first ever Big Ten conference game will take place between these two schools. Mark Dixon, former Johns Hopkins midfielder and current lacrosse analyst at the Big Ten Network, called the formation of the Big Ten lacrosse conference, "the biggest thing to happen to the sport in 20 years."

Already, the conference is being touted as possibly the best in the country, and if not the best, then "definitely the number two conference in the country," according to Courtney Connor, a Maryland alum and lacrosse analyst at BTN.

Part of what is going to make this conference great for the sport is this very Northwestern vs. Maryland matchup. While the teams have met many times before, this will only be the second regular season contest between them. Now playing in the same conference, and with a scheduled matchup every year, this should spark a budding rivalry. Being in the same conference, the teams can vie for bragging rights in the regular season–though the real bragging rights may still be won and lost on Memorial Day weekend, when the Final Four is usually held.

Last year, on that very weekend, it was Maryland that won those bragging rights. The Terps beat Northwestern 9-6 in the Final Four before beating Syracuse in the final to claim their national title. An added layer of excitement for players and fans looking forward to this game, therefore, is the revenge factor. Northwestern will be looking to avenge that loss and make a statement that this year will be different.

Northwestern already has a number of impressive victories on the young season, including wins over then-No. 7 Virginia and then-No. 5 Syracuse. They also have a solid mix of young, talented players and experienced leaders to show the way. A win over unanimous No. 1 Maryland would be the most impressive to date.