It’s January in Chicago, and although Old Man Winter hasn’t hit the Windy City with his usual fury quite yet, the Maroons are in full swing as teams get ready to suit up after long breaks, build on the success from vacation, and kick the conference season into full gear. With three ranked teams so far and the winter season only just warming up, it looks like it’s going to be a cheery three months at Ratner.
For most of the winter squads, games started this fall. Basketball, swimming, and wrestling all returned to the South Side to pick up where they left off, with both hoops teams and men’s swimming facing the crunch to grab a playoff spot.
Track and field joins the winter mix this week when it hosts the UW–Oshkosh duals this weekend, and tennis tosses its first serve February 2. With All-American second-year Vindya Dayananda returning to the court and joined by new partner, first-year Marissa Lin, the women’s side is already ranked 14th and primed to follow 2006’s breakout year with another strong showing.
Welcoming everyone back to Hyde Park on a high note, 17th-ranked and unbeaten women’s basketball reversed a curse with a convincing triumph over 24th-ranked Wash U (8–4, 0–1) Saturday. Coming out on top of a 54–51 cliffhanger against the Bears, the squad locked up its first win against the St. Louis rivals since edging them 70–67 January 8, 2005, and set itself off on the right foot in league play. As if those two bits weren’t enough, after the game the Maroons stamped the record books, becoming the first in the program’s 36-year run to open the season on an 11–0 mark.
Leading up to the historic victory, the team hosted four of its five games over break to close out its non-conference matchups and prep for the highly competitive UAA. Paced by a pair of third-years, Chicago averaged 71 points per game while holding opponents to 50.6 during the five-game stretch and outrebounded the competition with a 48.2 average.
Third-year guard and the Maroons’ top scorer Nofi Mojidi is averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor over the break. Wiping down the glass for the squad was forward Nicaya Rapier, who averaged 8.8 boards a night during the stretch.
Along with Mojidi and Rapier, the Maroons rounded out their stellar-starting five games with guards fourth-year Korry Schwanz and second-year Alex Leach, and first-year forward Molly Hackney. This core, plus some talented bench relief, has launched the squad to the top of the league, with eighth-ranked Brandeis (10–1, 1–1) and third-ranked Rochester (11–0, 3–0) the only other UAA teams ranked above Chicago in the D3hoops.com rankings.
With only two starters returning for the 2005–2006 campaign, the squad’s accomplishments this season reflect the strength of its bench. Rapier and Leach have stepped up from being substitute players last year, while Hackney has brought height and power to the low post.
While women’s hoops stole the spotlight with Saturday’s effort, the men’s side (9–3, 0–1) should not be overlooked as the squad tries to regain its footing after dropping from the top 25 this week and falling 70–59 to 24th-ranked Wash U (10–1, 1–0).
Before heading into a break for finals, the Maroons pulled out a stunning comeback in the final minute and a half to take an 81–77 decision against Wheaton (8–4, 0–1). Chicago followed it up with a 4–1 record during the break where it outscored the competition 74 points per game to 58.6 and outrebounded its opponents despite relying on a four-guard rotation. Fourth-year guard Brandon Woodhead led the way for Chicago during the five-game stretch with 16.6 points per game and a 57.1 shooting percentage from the floor.
There will be a couple of changes on the floor for the squad as it travels to Emory and Case this weekend. Second-year Tom Watson and fourth-year Jason Vismantas will fill in for injured third-year Tim Reynolds at center while the return of third-year Matt Corning gives the Maroons a spark off the bench with his aggressive play.
Without the same kind of busy vacation schedule as the two hoops squads, swimming is back in Hyde Park after a training trip to Sarasota, Florida, and the 22nd-ranked men’s team is particularly ready to make waves this winter.
Also moving towards the top half of the conference standings, the Maroons kicked off its season at the end of October, going undefeated in their dual meets and finishing first of 11 at the Maroon Invite in the opening month of competition.
That stretch was just a preview of what’s in store at Myers-McLoraine Pool this year. The bulk of the team’s season gets under way this weekend with the Chicago Invite as the Maroons take on their first opponents since hosting Grinnell and Lake Forest on November 18.
After going nearly two months without another squad to race against, there might be some seconds to shave off finish times, but Chicago proved back in October that it gets into shape quickly. Rookie head coach Jason Weber had high hopes for the men from day one, but even he was surprised by how quickly the team reached midseason. The Maroons also got a head start on preparing for the busy winter quarter with trip to Sarasota, Florida for training during break.
With individuals and a couple of relays looking for qualification to nationals in March, the South Siders have plenty of sharks in the water this season. Helping to pace the young roster to NCAAs is fourth-year captain Pat Seastedt, and 2006’s star rookie and record-buster Shane Carlson.
While men’s swimming restarts a banner year, an eye should be kept on the women’s side. The young roster raised the bar for its return after exceeding early expectations by matching their counterpart’s undefeated mark in dual meetings and taking the bronze in the Maroon Invite.
Much of Chicago’s early success came with a boost from second-year Sarah Laws, who counts as one of the more experienced swimmers, and first-year breakout Cassie O’Neill.
Rounding out the activity at Ratner is wrestling, as it winds down its season. It has been a rough winter for Chicago, but it has a chance to return to top-of-the-UAA form. Fourth-year Phil Kruzel and his classmates will lead the squad into the final three matches before the league championships and the Great Lakes Regionals in February.