September 14, 2006

Maroons set to kick off fall

No doubt students make their way to the South Side of Chicago in pursuit of the life of the mind. But what about moving into Hyde Park for the intellectual challenges and then staying for the sports?

Admittedly, it does sounds like a ridiculous sales pitch for the university that once sacrificed the use of its football field for the experimentations of Enrico Fermi. The fact remains, however: Athletics on campus are on the rise and showing no signs of slowing down in the near future. Not since the glory days of the early 1900s, when Amos Alonzo

Stagg and his minions dominated the Big Ten, has it been such a sweet time to be a Maroons fan.

The numbers are astonishing. On the individual level, eight athletes earned All-American honors in six sports. The year finished with eight squads—men’s and women’s soccer, cross-country and outdoor track, and women’s indoor track and tennis—ranked in the top 30 of Division III. A record-breaking five trips to the postseason topped the whole thing off, but four squads in particular stood above the rest en route to banner seasons.

For the maroon and white, rumblings of a great 2005-2006 campaign began September 2 when women’s soccer and its 13 fourth-years returned to the pitch for its first match. The season opened to the dull tune of a 2-1 loss to Ohio Wesleyan; nevertheless, expectations for head coach Amy Reifert’s seasoned crew remained very high.

Powered by a core of veterans chasing after the only thing that had eluded them through their first three years in uniform—an NCAA championship—the squad compiled an 18–3–2 mark. As Chicago rolled through the rest of the UAA and the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, it proved a tough match on a bad day for any team but simply unbeatable on a good one.

On November 19, in front of a revved up crowd at Stagg field, Chicago sank Puget Sound 1–0 in sudden death overtime to lock up the team’s second final four appearance in three years. A 2–1 loss to Messiah College in overtime at the semifinals ended the Maroons’ playoff run, but their third-place national ranking in the final polls remained the highest for any Chicago team during the year.

The loss of the Class of 2006 leaves a couple of big cleats for the team to fill, including two pairs belonging to All-Americans. Coming into this season, though, the squad is not so much reloading as it is rebuilding.

There’s 2004–2005 UAA Rookie of the Year Christine Farmer set to take on a new leadership role as a third-year, and second-years Siggy Nachtergale and Olivia N [what is Olivia’s last name?] will get a chance to sharpen their skills with some added playing time after phenomenal rookie outings. Best of all, there’s the winning tradition of eight postseason bids in the past 10 years under Reifert.

Putting together a playoff run of their own was men’s cross-country. After a runner-up finish in the 2003 UAAs where they collected 69 points and ultimately fell to Wash U’s 43, head coach Chris Hall’s Maroons tamed the Bears in 2004 to claim the league title by a single point. The squad defended its new championship status in 2005 by taking home ninth place at nationals for the highest ranking in program history, surpassing 2004’s 16th-place standing.

Leaping up seven places in the division will be a tough feat to repeat as the team prepares to hit the road without last year’s co-captains Pat Hogan and outdoor-track All-American

Teage O’Connor. Fourth-year Emil Bojanov will be looked to to provide a leadership role on a young team. Only a freak accident prevented the Bulgarian from All-American honors in outdoor track’s 1,500-meter, and he will be out to prove that last season’s success was no fluke.

On a similar mission this fall will be football that caught the winning spirit of women’s soccer and men’s cross-country last year just in time to around its season.

After a rocky 0–4 start in non-conference play, the Maroons went on a 5–0 blitz to close out the season. Their amazing wrap up matched the longest streak strung together in the modern era and launched them into their first winning season since 2001.

In plowing through the season’s second half, Chicago clinched its third UAA title in the past eight years but first since 2000 with a 14–7 squeaker over Case. A week later, with the title in hand, the Maroons took the field against Eureka for the season finale and proceeded to summarily dismantle the Red Devils 55–7, putting an exclamation mark on a triumphant season.

This kind of defensive dominance may be a little bit tougher to come by this season with the departure of All-American defensive lineman Rob Tamillow and honorable mention All-American cornerback Colin Carrier. Putting points on the board should present less of a challenge. Fourth-year signal caller Matt Rinklin returns along with most of his offensive weapons, and a powerful line headed by fourth-year tackle and Preseason All-American Ben Potts. If the team’s new starters and veteran incumbents can mesh quickly, the Maroons might hold onto their UAA title for just a little bit longer.

With fall teams setting the tone and raising the bar, the rest of the South Siders met the new standard. No squad witnessed as dramatic turnaround as women’s tennis. After going 13–8 in 2004–2005 and 10–11 in 2003–2004, women’s tennis turned heads with a breakout season that started in September and ended in May with the program’s first postseason bid.

Rejuvenated by a dynamic crop of rookies, the squad posted a15–9 mark while going 73–58 at singles and 37–27 in pairs play. Leading the charge for the up-and-comers was All-American and UAA Rookie of the Year Vindya Dayananda. With her sweet swing and composure under pressure, she propelled her teammates to their first-ever appearance at the NCAA regionals, where they fell in the first round. Next season will be a test of the team’s collective will. With several key contributors not returning, the Maroons could slip into a sophomore slump or build upon last year’s success and elevate their games to the next level.

Last year gave us a little bit of the expected but also a few surprises. With teams rising to or holding down a place as one of the league’s powerhouses, a trip to Chicago is no longer a walk in the park for opponents.

Fun may come here to die, but at least sports are alive and kicking.