Massachusetts coach Dick Garber runs one of those low-key, low-budget programs that characterizes most college lacrosse teams. But that doesn't prevent his players from having lofty dreams of winning the national championship.

"I remember the first time a player asked me about winning a national title," Garber said. "It was four years ago, on a bus when we were returning from a trip. I told him I never had that as a goal, and he was surprised.

"But the NCAA tournament has changed things, at least in their minds. Before, no one here would have thought about winning the national title.Now it's at least possible."

Seven years after the NCAA first agreed to sponsor a national championship tournament, college lacrosse is in the strongest position of its hisotry.More schools are playing the sport, better plays are being produced and interest is growing yearly in more areas of the country.

The NCAA tournament it responsible for these changes. Before the playoffs, the sport was a closed corporation, its national title chosen by committee, which usually awarded the crown to one or more of five schools - Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Navy, Army and Virginia.

But even though only one college outside this clique - Cornell - has won the tournament title since the playoffs were launched, the mere fact that the championship is now decided on the playing field and not in a smoke-filled room has altered the image of lacrosse dramatically.

At schools like Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rutgers, Hofstra and Washington & Lee, lacrosse has taken on new importance. Crowds at games have increased, publicity has grown and budgets have gained stability.

At the national final Saturday in Charlottesville, as many as $15,000 paid customers are expected, which would be a record for a playoff final. Lacrosse officials recall with relish old predictions that a championship at a neutral site outside the Baltimore Washington area would never draw so many fans.

"You don't have to justify lacrosse as a sport anymore," said Doyle Smith, publicity director for the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. "When you decide your champion on the field, it helps the sport's credibility."

Credibility. You hear that word frequently when talking to longtime lacrosse officials. Although they could always point to good-sized crowds and quality teams and say the sport was legitimate, its political overtones always seemed to negate their argument.

"When we first discussed how to broaden lacrosse's impact," Garber said, "we decided we had to turn to the NCAA. If we asked them to sponsor our tournament, we thought it would give us instant status and credibility.

"With us, the change has been very noticeable. We never could get a line in the paper. Now we can. We've got players writing to us wanting to play here that never would have written before. We have crowds of 4,000 or more a games. That never happened before."

The marriage between the NCAA and USILA, which hs run lacrosse without interference from outside groups, was not an easy one, especially from the USILA standpoint. It meant relinquishing some control and power, which old-guard lacrosse officials were reluctant to do.

"But it's a lot easier for other collegues to brush off a sport if it doesn't have NCAA status," said Hopkins atheletic director Bob Scott, one of the game's most successful coaches. "Once we got NCAA backing, we figured it would add to our respect. That argument won out, and I'm glad it did."

The NCAA and USILA ultimately compromised on a merger. The NCAA runs the tournament - and keeps a share of the profits - but the USILA picks the all-America teams, issues weekly ratings and sponsors an annual all-star game.

"Things have worked out fine," Smith said. "You still have people who occasionally argue that we should run our own tournament and keep all the money, but I thing the benefit of having the NCAA with us offsets that idea."

The ratings also have helped. A panel of coaches votes weekly on the top 20 teams, and the poll is picked up by the wire services. Many papers that never wrote anything about lacrosse carry the poll.

Lacrosse aficionados never dreamed of seeing their sport on a national television program like Wide World of Sports, but ABC showed a highlight tape of last year's championship game on the program last season and will do the same this year. Sports Illustrated also has increased its lacrosse coverage since the tournament began.

The sport still has growing pains. Not enough high schools sponsor teams - the equipment is very expensive - and there is the continuing problem of a few colleges still dominating the tournament.

But lacrosse is making inroads in the Southwest and Far West while solidifying its position in the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast. Scott sees a day when its national prominence could be much greater.

"Things, have tripled since the 1950s," he said, "and I think we will get bigger if the economic aspect can be worked out. Once people t=y lacrosse, they like it - if they can afford it."

Garber thinks it would help if the present eight-team tournament were expanded to 12 schoolds.

"Every year, the first four or five teams are easy to pick," he said, "but after that, you wind up leaving out some deserving people.

"I'd like to see us go to 12 teams, and give the first four schools a first round bye. It would increase the tournament by only a few days, and I think it would benefit everyone."

Although others argue that having 12 teams would weaken the playoffs too much, Garber points out many had argued the old committee selection process was also successful, a point Cornell proved untrue the first year the tournament was started.

In 1970, Cornell was undefeated, but the committee chose tri-champions Navy, Virginia and Hopkins after deciding Cornell's schedule wasn't difficult enough.

The Big Red then won the first NCAA playoffs in 1971, beating old-guard Maryland in the finl for sweet revenge.

"I think we will be forced to go to 12 teams," Garber said, "and once we do, everyone will be glad we did. You've got to keep up with demand in order for this sport to keep growing."