May 15, 2007

State of our athletics: A program at an impasse

As we approach the 20th anniversary of competition in the UAA, it seems like there has never been a better time to be involved with Maroons athletics. Everywhere you look, there’s some new development—be it a refurbished football field, a trans-Pacific training trip, another team recording a best-ever season, or another effort to reach out to the fans.

At the same time, there are some distant rumblings that all might not be well. Coaches are leaving for greener pastures with alarming regularity, multiple teams seem unable to break through to the next level, and the improvements made on the field have not been matched by a growing awareness of those improvements among the rest of the student body off the field. And that’s not even mentioning the alarming rumors that the U of C is about to become embroiled in the breakup of DIII. Are these growing pains or signs of major roadblocks ahead?

To help our readers keep track of the U of C’s progress—and whatever obstacles might be getting in the way of that progress—Maroon Sports is proud to present its first annual “State of our athletics” feature. Featuring exclusive interviews with Chicago athletic director Tom Weingartner, UAA executive secretary Dick Rasmussen, and other officials from across DIII, this three-part series will offer a full survey of life in the halls of Ratner—reviewing where we’ve been, where we are, and what’s next for the Maroons.

Part One:

A Program on the Rise or at a Plateau? A Competitive Round-Up of 2006–2007

With softball’s elimination on the second day of NCAA Regionals, the 2006–2007 season is all but finished for the Maroons. First-year Marissa Lin of women’s tennis will make her bid for All-American status this weekend, and track and field still has one more last-chance meet and NCAAs left on its schedule. The rest of the South Siders, however, are busily getting ready for graduation or getting in shape for next year.

Those who will get another chance to suit up have plenty to build on after this year’s achievements. Fourth-year Vidthya Abraham and the women’s cross-country team undoubtedly led the way, with Abraham becoming an All-American and the team finishing 19th at Nationals. But plenty of other squads had something to write home about. Men’s basketball earned a share of its first UAA title since 2001, and wrestling rebounded from a tough 2006 to claim its sixth league crown in seven years. The hoopsters ended the year ranked 17th as they fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament, while fourth-year Phil Kruzel garnered an All-American certificate with an eighth-place finish at Dubuque. Men’s soccer also punched through under first-year head coach Scott Wiercinski for its second postseason appearance in a row, joining softball in that feat.

While they may not have earned as many accolades, women’s indoor track was ranked eighth in DIII in the final poll, and men’s swimming, women’s soccer, women’s tennis, and men’s indoor track also finished the season nationally ranked. Both the tennis and swimming programs made important strides against their league opponents, as did both track teams. Women’s basketball’s year ended with a swoon, but they opened their season with a record 16 straight wins to earn a number-one ranking in the coaches’ poll and a number four from plus an individual statistical champion in fourth-year Korry Schwanz (for free throw percentage).

It was a bit more of a disappointing showing for a few other teams. Football went from champs to chumps with a 4–5 mark, going 0–3 against UAA opponents, and volleyball earned a fifth-place finish at the league championships after a season-long struggle.

On the whole, however, life has been treating the Maroons sweetly. In particular, they continue to see the benefits of the department’s new commitment to what DI might term “non-revenue sports.” The increased attention and investment have certainly paid dividends for the cross country, track and field, swimming, and tennis programs. The latter two in particular have gone from UAA bottom-feeders to legitimate contenders in an incredibly short amount of time. The runners under Chris Hall haven’t made quite as big a leap, if only because they were further forward to begin with.

“The opening of Ratner really allowed us to reorganize the department and add some assistant coaches, and the combination of new facilities for track and swimming and renovated facilities for tennis helped that as well. It’s a little early to make a final assessment of that impact, just because a lot of what we’ve added has only been around for a few years,” Weingartner said. “I think that we’re making good progress, but we’re really just in the first stage of making that progress.”

Despite these improvements, there is some evidence to suggest that the program has hit its ceiling. Although a number of squads entered the season with lofty goals, none of them seriously entertained thoughts of a deep playoff run. At least temporarily, it seems as though the U of C has reached a plateau: Many teams anticipate fighting for a playoff spot, but not going far beyond that, and many finished in the top three in their leagues without breaking through for a conference title. Although it’s certainly been a great experience for athletes, coaches, and fans alike, Chicago is still a long way from matching the achievements of UAA competitors such as Emory or Wash U, who regularly have multiple teams expected to contend for national championships. Offered this description, Weingartner commented that that was a realistic assessment of the current place of the Maroons.

“We’re anxious to be more competitive at the UAA level. We’re never comfortable, and we’re always looking to improve. But the national level is not our focus,” he said. “Our goal is always to be amongst the very best in the conference. In many, many sports, if we’re competitive against the UAA, we’re going to be one of the better teams in DIII. I am a competitive guy, our coaches and athletes are all competitive, and we’re looking to improve in every sport…but we let the national considerations take care of themselves.”

From the South Side to Shanghai: The International Travel Program

Taking deep root in the department since premiering 10 years ago, the international program ranks among the ways in which the Maroons hope to improve. Last summer, the men’s and women’s basketball teams got the chance to tour Italy before the year began, and this August, women’s soccer will take its third trip to the country since 1999. Volleyball will make its international debut with matches in Beijing and Shanghai, becoming the first Maroon team to visit Asia since the baseball squad ended its series with Waseda University in 1930 under Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Though the athletic department contributes some funding to these trips, financial needs are mainly met by team fundraising and by support from the Edith Ballwebber Fund, a special endowed account that has been devoted to support international travel for women’s athletic teams.

“We’re unique among programs in the country in providing this. We think it’s a great part of the liberal arts education, and it’s also a lot of fun,” Weingartner said.

It has not yet been established how much of an effect these overseas tours have on the seasons of the teams involved. Only women’s basketball last year and men’s soccer after its 1997 trip to Scotland, have gone abroad and, have subsequently failed to make the postseason, but Weingartner was hesitant to tie that success directly to travel.

“I think our coaches would tell you that it helps…and it’s yet another factor that helps with recruiting,” he said. “But it’s not the main point of the program.”

Saturday Night Lights: The Football Field and Other Facilities

Volleyball and women’s soccer might be heading to another hemisphere, but one of the biggest differences for next year’s U of C athletic program will be less travel—at least for some students.

One of the major projects of the department over the last year has been the addition of lights and synthetic turf to the football field. Construction is nearly finished and on schedule to be completed by September 1, allowing Maroons football to make its nighttime debut against Elmhurst September 15.

The Elmhurst game will actually be an exception to the rule of how the field is used. September 15 will mark the football team’s only evening game next season. Weather and travel considerations will keep the team from scheduling too many other games, and although track and field head coach Chris Hall is in the process of scheduling a twilight meet for late next spring, similar issues will limit Stagg’s usefulness for that program as well. According to Weingartner, the biggest beneficiaries will be the silent majority of the U of C’s athletes: the non-varsity teams.

“[Intramural and club sports] are a very important part of our program, and they will probably use that facility more than our varsity programs.... That was a big rationale for this project,” he said. “From 8 p.m. until we close is going to be club and IM, one right after the other. The fact that we can play some of our games at night is really a happy byproduct.”

But not everything is so rosy for the Maroons. Check back on Thursday to hear Weingartner’s comments on coaching turnover and the place of athletics on campus.