Time for major sports to finally turn up the heat

We will never forget how Yale lost The Game for the fifth consecutive time our senior year, but for the Class of 2006, a little winter sports success might do something to dull the pain. If you are a Yale sports fan, odds are you follow football, basketball and hockey. And the great thing about the winter (besides the beautiful New Haven weather) is that two of those sports, hockey and basketball, call this season home.

“Basketball,” of course, means men’s basketball, and “hockey” means men’s hockey. It’s not fair, but that’s life. It is certainly true that the more enlightened of Yale sports fans may be following the always-fun women’s hockey team, and with good reason. The arrival of dual-sport freshman phenom Crysti Howser ’09 and the retooling of the offensive scheme have finally started to pay dividends for the Elis after a sluggish start. We can forgive those same enlightened fans for avoiding the women’s basketball team, whose games have taken on the atmosphere of a bedside death watch.

But the real story is neither Howser’s dominance nor the fact that the women’s basketball team would have trouble with a good B-hoops squad. The story of the year, and maybe even of our four years at Yale, is the logic-defying wins the men’s basketball team has been putting up and the miraculous rebirth of the men’s hockey team behind (or, rather, in front of) rookie goalie Alec Richards ’09.

Let me explain why this matters. The Yalies of the Class of 2006, now second-semester seniors, were visiting beautiful New Haven in the fall and winter of 2002. Incidentally, Yale in fall and winter of 2002 was in a basketball and hockey-induced frenzy. The basketball team was making a run at the Ivy title, which it would eventually win, and Chris Higgins, one of the best players in Yale hockey history, was making opposing goaltenders look obsolete.

In short, Yale seemed to be on the verge of becoming an Ivy League sports powerhouse, a school that could dominate not only academically, but also athletically, and in the sports that mattered most. The previous four years had revived faith in Yale’s major sports. Hockey won Ivy titles in 1998, 1999 and 2001, and football won the league crown in 1999 for the first time in over a decade.

But it was the basketball team’s title run in 2002 that really got ’06 fans’ hopes up. Few schools have dominated their leagues the way that Penn and Princeton have dominated Ivy League basketball. In the 50-year history of Ivy League basketball, Penn or Princeton has won at least a share of the title 44 times. The NCAA tournament berth has gone to one of those two schools for 17 consecutive seasons. For Yale to get anything, even a little piece of that pie, said a lot for the future of Yale sports. And the Bulldogs did it with mostly underclassmen and a new coach.

We seniors really thought our time at Yale was going to be a great time to be watching the Bulldogs, especially in the major sports. That is not what happened. The young men’s basketball team never lived up to the promise of that first season, the hockey team suffered through a few rebuilding years and the disaster that was the 2004-05 season, and football lost again and again to Harvard.

Instead of men’s hockey, men’s basketball and football, the sports that were successful in our first three years were mostly women’s sports and sports like squash and crew and sailing that most Americans do not follow. Perhaps it was for the best. Sailing and squash and crew brought home not just league championships but also national ones, and women’s soccer, women’s hockey, volleyball, women’s lacrosse and even field hockey made exciting postseason appearances. The off-years for hockey and basketball drew fans to sports they might not have watched otherwise.

All these successes have been wonderful, and they have made a huge impact on the way many of us will remember our time at Yale. But now it’s senior year, and it’s time for the Elis to show their fans what they can really do. For the majority of fans, nothing can match the excitement of a men’s basketball or men’s hockey title race. It has not happened in our first three years here, but there is still time.

James Jones seems to have a knack for coaching underdogs and underclassmen. The Bulldogs start only one senior and were picked to finish fifth in the league in the preseason poll. But despite an absolutely obscene number of turnovers per game, the Elis have been knocking off teams they haven’t beaten in years (such as Navy) or ever (such as Rice and American). The Elis will enter conference play with a winning record for the first time since 2001-02, when they (gasp!) won the title. And Princeton is terrible this year. So there’s hope.

The hockey team seems in even better shape, coming off a hard-fought loss to No. 11 UNH last night at Ingalls. Richards is looking impressive, and there’s a widespread sense that the whole team is starting to come together as it rides a four-game league winning streak into Saturday’s home game against Brown. Tim Taylor is no stranger to Ivy League championships, so fans can cross their fingers at the Whale, too.

Whatever happens with winter’s two most important teams, everyone — seniors included — is in for a hell of a ride. And if nothing happens, and the men leave us empty-handed yet again, standing alone on the doorstep on prom night, one image from a chilly mid-November night will always be there to comfort us:



YALE 2, DUKE 1, 00:00



Amen.



Nick Baumann is a senior in Morse College and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column on Yale and Ivy League sports appears on Thursdays.

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