September 23, 2008

The U of C: where athletics don’t come to die

Last year around this time, I was a U of C newcomer playing pick-up basketball at Ratner when I started making some small talk with what looked to be a ninth-year student, a grizzled veteran of the core curriculum, a resident of the deepest, darkest shadows of the Reg.

We just shot the breeze for a couple minutes. What are the best restaurants? Who are the best Hum teachers? Is it tough, getting through a whole year here?

And that's when he turned to me, a distant look in his eyes, almost longing for the simpler times of high school.

"After 160 days of school, there's part of you that wonders if you have anything left; if you have anything more to give," he said. "But somehow, from somewhere, you find it. You dig deeper. You have to, because if you don't, you go home."

Well, all right, that was Steve Nash and Manu Ginobili in one of those NBA commercials, and they were talking about playing basketball and not studying Freud.

This college isn't as bad as that makes it sound. Don't worry, there are no ninth-years—it's way too expensive to stay here that long, so most people transfer to state school by then.

But Chicago can be a grind, and if I've learned anything (other than the theories of Max Weber), it's that the sometimes bad but usually just underappreciated sports scene at Chicago is actually a great way to get excited about something during that soul-freezing winter.

When looking at the University of Chicago athletics, it's easy to say, these players aren't big enough, they're not fast enough, and they're not strong enough to be real athletes. And that might be true, if the men's basketball team was supposed to defend against Greg Oden or the football team's defensive line had to stop Darren McFadden.

It's true that some of Chicago's programs are meager, but Chicago can put on a show, if you know where to look.

As the nation's foremost self-deprecating university, the worst losses are oftentimes appreciated more than the best wins. But if Chicago fans are only looking for how bad their teams will be this season, they're going to miss a lot.

If they're not paying attention, some people might miss a women's soccer team that has gone to the postseason five times in six years. The same team that came from behind to take down 10th-ranked Wash U 2-1 to get back to the NCAA tournament last season. The same team that has 20 players returning from last year.

This is a team that knows how to win.

If they're not paying attention, some people might miss two of the best D-III basketball teams in the country. They might miss a game like the women's UAA title game last season, in which then-second-year Molly Hackney and company picked apart defending conference champions Wash U for a 76-53 cakewalk. Or they might miss the men's game that followed that afternoon, an encounter that featured two huge lead swings and ended in dramatic fashion with Chicago winning the UAA crown 74-66.

These are teams that know how to win.

If they're not paying attention, some people might miss two track and field teams that sent 12 athletes to Nationals and took home UAA titles in men's and women's indoor, a women's team that ranked as high as fourth nationally, and a men's team that rose to sixth.

All are teams who know how win.

In truth, Chicago has a lot to be excited about this season.

Last year featured six UAA Rookies of the Year. With established coaches like 2007-2008 UAA Coaches of the Year Chris Hall (indoor track and field) and Aaron Roussell (women's basketball) as well as new faces like women's volleyball coach Vanessa Walby, the same success from Chicago youngsters certainly isn't out of the question.

There should be no question that the University of Chicago will retain a presence in the NCAA's Top 25 rankings across all seasons and several sports. And there's even less question that Top 50 will be there to Ooo-ooooooo from the crowd. That's Top 50, the man, not the list. A librarian by day and superfan by night, Top 50 is a fixture in Maroon athletics and puts on a show on the off chance that Chicago can't manage to by itself.

And then, of course, there's Wash U. The bane of the Maroons' existence. The one school, if any, that deserves Top's gibes. The school that, just for being Wash U, earned a jersey pop taunt from normally quiet then-third-year guard Matt Corning after last year's UAA men's basketball title game. OK, so he's not too quiet, but hopefully he delivers a spine-melting dunk in some unsuspecting Bear's face this season. (Last year it was a Case Western player who received that treatment.)

The sports editors at the Maroon know best that Chicago has more than its share of detractors. But all those kids who think they know how bad Chicago sports are and all the rest who are too busy to care, they're going to miss a lot

The grind at Chicago is tough, but not so tough that it precludes attendance at a great basketball game.

So stay tuned, sports fans, this could be a good one.