September 19, 2007

Where sports come to die? Not on our watch

The preseason polls that matter most to U of C students just came out, and the news is fairly good. The U.S. News and World Report listed the school as the ninth-best university in the country, tied with Columbia. Slipping in just below the radar, though, was The Princeton Review’s annual survey and its treacherous assault on our school’s athletic programs. In its “Intercollegiate Athletics Unpopular or Nonexistent” category, the U of C clocked in at number 15, only seven slots below the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and just one place better than last year’s ranking of 14th.

With so much hatred swirling around, it’s easy to get caught up in the negativity and ignore our possibly nonexistent (the survey didn’t specify) sports teams. In honor of The Princeton Review, here are 15 reasons why the Maroons are worth watching this fall:

15. Phil the Phoenix. Football’s midseason meltdown in 2006 notwithstanding, it’s unclear why Chicago’s teams are represented by a bird known for spontaneous combustion. Opposing fans and first-timers may wonder openly why a team nicknamed the “Maroons” chooses to be represented by an oversized chicken, but the mascot has been a hit in Hyde Park, whether leading the cheers in the bleachers or attempting to grapple with wrestling head coach Leo Kocher. True to form, last year’s Phoenix was consumed by his own fiery blaze (or graduated, depending on your perspective), but a new bird will arrive this year to take his place.

14. The Wheaton Thunder. Bring your own Pope hats when the Thunder come calling on October 20 at Stagg. The evangelical school from the western suburbs has been footloose since 2004, but its women’s soccer squad has been a regular at the little dance since long before that, taking home three national titles this decade. Last season was the first in five years in which the two squads had not paired off in the postseason (with each school winning twice), and the Thunder enter the season ranked second in the poll. If the Maroons can pull off the upset, it will be a sure sign that they’ve recovered the killer instinct they were missing at times last season.

13. Top 50. For the uninitiated, Top (real name: Tyjuan Edwards) is the Maroons’ superfan and ringleader of the Phoenix Phanatix. In his last UAA appearance at Stagg, he was given a red card by a clearly deranged referee and exited the premises to a standing ovation, but not before taking time to congratulate the Maroons on a well played imminent victory over Brandeis. Edwards, who works at the Reg on weekdays, told the Maroon last year that his favorite phrase to yell at games is “remix” because “it totally means that our players just scrambled the other person’s eggs.” And who doesn’t want to see that?

12. Bringing XC back. While not much of a spectator sport, few teams have been as consistent in recent years as men’s and women’s cross country under head coach Chris Hall. The women’s squad has had All-Americans each of the past two years, while the men placed 15th at NCAAs in 2004 and ninth in 2005, before retooling last fall. Both teams will be in the running for both UAA and regional honors this year.

11. Eureka. For the last three seasons, football has defeated its end-of-season creampuff with a funny name by a combined score of 147–33, including a 55–7 desecration in 2005, which tied the modern-era school record for points. With a number of new faces on offense this season, including a new signal caller behind center, the Maroons may be hard pressed to match their recent offensive efficiency when the Red Devils roll into town November 10, but the points should still come fast and furious.

10. Calvin. Last season, women’s soccer traveled to Calvin for a crucial late-season match with the then-–fourth-ranked Knights. Badly needing a quality regional win for their NCAA tournament profile, the Maroons lacked offensive spark and fell 1–0—their third loss in four games after going the previous five years without a losing streak. Any question of what difference a year would make may have been answered this September 8, when the Maroons got their revenge in a big way at Stagg Field. Four different players scored first-half goals as the home side cruised to a 4–0 rout.

9. Field of dreams. It’s not quite Dylan going electric at Newport, but this fall the Maroons will play home games under the artificial glare of electricity for the first time, thanks to off-season renovations that included a new track, field turf for Stagg, and stadium lighting that will allow for night games. For now, most of the benefits will come in the form of more practice flexibility, but football will christen the lights and turf on September 15 against Elmhurst, and men’s soccer has one night game on its schedule, against Beloit on September 25.

8. The UAA. With the exception of the NESCAC (Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, etc.), no team brings more academic and athletic clout to its respective conference than the University Athletic Association. Consisting of Emory, Rochester, NYU, Case Western, Carnegie Mellon, Brandeis, Wash U, and the U of C, the league boasts national powerhouses in just about every sport except football.

7. The Creator. Regardless of the attendance at home games, the U of C’s impact on intercollegiate sports should never be questioned, if only because of the contributions of Amos Alonzo Stagg. As coach of the Maroons from 1892–1932, he pioneered the huddle, the lateral, the tackling dummy, helmets, and names on the back of jerseys—all while doing as much as anyone at the school before or since for the name on the front. When he felt so tempted, he dabbled in baseball as well, long enough to invent the batting cage. While the Maroons almost certainly will not be in attendance, the old ball coach will be representing the U of C once more December 15 in Salem, Virginia, when the top two teams in DIII compete in the Stagg Bowl to determine the national champion.

6. Volleyball on the rise. It’s been a familiar refrain for volleyball the past few years: plenty of young talent, but not enough to get by the giants of the UAA, where usually at least three squads are ranked in the top 10. Last fall’s campaign gave reason for optimism, though, as the Maroons pulled out a surprising fifth-place finish at the league tournament. With all but one regular returning and some added momentum coming off of a summer in China, this may be the year the squad breaks out of its decade-long funk.

5. Sophomore slump? Last season men’s soccer played one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, broke in a new coach, and had eight different players starting at new positions, but still managed to make its second consecutive postseason appearance. Without All-UAA center midfielder Eric Kirkenmeier and goalkeeper Keith Crum, the Maroons will have some big shoes to fill this season, but eight returning starters could make this a campaign to remember. The Maroons take on Wash U at home on November 3 in what could be the UAA championship game.

4. The streak. Women’s soccer was on the slump last season, uncharacteristically missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001 a year after finishing as runners-up to Messiah. At Stagg Field, though, they were their usual dominant selves, running their home winning streak to 17 consecutive games. With another win this season, they have now won 18 straight in Hyde Park, and are unbeaten in 33 straight.

3. Phoenix Phanatix. The official student cheering section of the Chicago Maroons, last year the RSO helped provide a fan bus to men’s basketball’s first-round NCAA tournament game and kept the atmosphere lively at baseball and softball games with free cookouts. They’ll be back for another year of promotions and general phanaticism this fall.

2. Final Four. The crowning accomplishment in an immensely successful decade for U of C athletics, women’s soccer’s Final Four runs in 2003 and 2005 were a sight to behold, with five All-Americans on the pitch and frenzied home crowds braving the cold to cheer them on during the playoff run. While predicting a repeat run from either of the soccer teams might be a bit premature at this point, both should contend for playoff berths and have the talent to put together lengthy tournament runs.

1. Wuck Fash U. Owing both to its relative proximity (a mere six-hour drive) and its academic and athletic competence, Wash U has solidified its status as public enemy number one at sporting events. With the exception of last year, when Carnegie Mellon swept the league, the winner of the team’s annual “Founders’ Cup” brawl had gone on to win the UAA title for seven consecutive years. The Bears’ soccer teams both enter the season nationally ranked, as does its eight-time NCAA champion women’s volleyball squad.