January 11, 2008

Winter squads ready to take it up a notch

Not all Chicago students have the luxury of a month-long break. While the majority of us sat in vegetative states in front of Law and Order marathons, a handful of South Siders stayed in the ice-world of Hyde Park to hone their game skills as competition continued for Chicago’s winter squads. As Maroon fans return to the stands, they’ll rejoin teams whose seasons went on far from the eyes of their supporters.

When we left them, women’s basketball had suffered a blow when a loss to UW–Whitewater not only ended a 30-game non-conference winning streak but prompted the squad’s fall out of top-25 rankings. A loss to rival Wheaton at the end of finals week put the Maroons at 5–2, unfamiliar territory for a team that rocketed out of the gate to a 16–0 start last season and a dominant 10–0 beginning the winter before.

Yet four solid wins in December have the 25th-ranked Maroons back in the polls, and the team is displaying the depth and consistency required for a playoff run.

Last year, the squad started to stumble only days after earning the top ranking in the country, and hopes of an extended season dimmed.

Limping to a 2–6 finish, consistency varied so much that the team clobbered Emory by 31 points in Atlanta and then lost to the struggling Eagles in front of a home crowd. With early losses this time around, Chicago won’t feel the same pressure that led to last year’s struggles.

While last season the Maroons saw few significant contributions from the bench, the picture today is strikingly different. Five Maroons have led matches in scoring, and third-year Alex Leach has come off the bench to average more points than two starters. Both losses have come when only one player broke into double-digit points, and it has become clear Chicago clicks best when everyone contributes.

While basketball may be headed into the toughest part of its schedule when UAA play opens at Wash U tomorrow, wrestling faced some of its strongest competition to date between quarters. The squad sent their best athletes into the D-I fray at Northwestern’s Midlands tournament, and tangled with several ranked teams in their other appearances.

Heading into the break with a 2–1 dual record, the Maroons fell in their lone dual match of the break to 26th-ranked Elmhurst and struggled to a next-to-last-place finish at the stacked Cornell Invite. Despite the team’s difficulties, Chicago seems to have found its potential replacement for last season’s All-American Phil Kruzel in Troy Carlson. The second-year grabbed the squad’s lone placement at Cornell and topped his D-I opponent from American University at Northwestern.

With only a month left until UAA championships in the Big Apple, the relatively young team will need to use their remaining tests to get used to performing against stiffer competition if they want to claim another crown.

Of all the squads, men’s basketball may have gained the most during the stretch. Entering the break, the men’s side of the hoop was struggling to stay above .500, and the uncertainty of having several star seniors graduate still hung over the squad which had yet to find a real way to win without them.

Problems mounted when fourth-year Nate Hainje, a preseason All-American, hadn’t lived up to his explosive expectations as strong coverage limited his potential. To make matters worse and rob the squad of any momentum, a 66–61 loss to Loras in their first match of the break sent the Maroons reeling to a 3–4 record.

The cure for these ills? A four-game home stand translated into a four-game winning streak as Chicago began to look like a high caliber team once again. Hainje, once expected to be the high scorer in most of the Maroons’ matches, grabbed the honor for the first time this season December 15, draining 25 points to kick start his team’s winning stretch against Illinois Wesleyan in an 85–70 thumping.

In their two matches since Christmas, the team has come from behind to seal the win, suggesting that the squad has finally found its groove, even under pressure. Entering tough conference play will certainly test if the squad has really found the new style they need to succeed. But things are looking up.

Of the winter teams, only swimming got to escape the Midwest. Returning to training in Florida, the two squads used the time to catch up on conditioning they missed at the beginning of the year due to NCAA regulations limiting practice sessions before classes start.

Even without being in top shape this fall, the Maroons notched some notable early success on both the men’s and women’s side and will look to keep up the team triumphs as individuals gear for a spot at Nationals.

With basketball warming up for heated conference action, wrestling preparing to defend its UAA crown, the debut of two strong indoor track teams, and the return of swim squads with serious individual NCAA promise, the gray sky, cold, and darkness that characterize Chicago winters could have plenty of bright spots.