It’s Friday night at 5:45 and the men’s soccer team is just finishing its off-season weight training. The players rush to change into baseball uniforms before grabbing a quick dinner and heading to the Lee Amphitheater for the men’s basketball game at seven.
They arrive decked out in their “dress code” of a baseball jersey, pants and socks — with a few in football or basketball regalia — to cheer on the Yale team and jeer at the visitors, whoever they may be. They make up a fifth of the student section and account for half the crowd’s noise.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”12546″ ]
They call themselves the Little League.
Yale sports fans are, for the most part, a subdued bunch. But the men’s basketball team attracts an unusually vocal group, led by a group of soccer players known as the Little League. The soccer players make up one of the few organized cheering sections in the Ivy League but also benefit from the intimacy lacking at other, larger schools.
As athletes themselves, the Little Leaguers have a strong interest in raising the level of excitement surrounding Yale athletics.
“Support for Yale teams is not as good as it should be,” soccer player Jordan Raybould ’10 said. “The student body is a little apathetic towards athletics. We’re trying to get more people excited about games.”
A long set of bleachers runs the length of the court at the Lee Amphitheater; its five sections come to life every Friday and Saturday night as they bear the weight of hundreds of students.
New Haven residents on hand to cheer for children’s teams that provide halftime entertainment accent the throngs of Yalies. Along with parents of the hoops men, they take their places in wooden seats above the student section.
Rap music blasts through the arena when soccer player Travis Chulick ’10 arrives in a basketball jersey. Despite his key role in providing the Little League with thorough scouting reports on visiting teams, he does not own a baseball jersey.
One of the loudest fans in the crowd, he is among the first to grab a spot just inches from the action on the floor. Chulick is soon joined by his teammates, most boasting baseball shirts. Raybould’s is a relic of his childhood baseball career, but teammate James Craig’s ’08 jersey is a hand-me-down from a former Little Leaguer, a testimony to the group’s history.
Ryan Raybould ’05 — Jordan Raybould’s older brother and a Yale soccer alumnus — and his teammates were the founders of the Little League. According to the younger Raybould, the group formed organically to attend basketball games and the baseball theme came about naturally. The band has since become a soccer tradition.
The Dawg Pound, founded by basketball center Matt Kyle ’08 and a handful of fellow seniors, is another student-organized troupe, although unlike Little League, it is partially funded. But the group, created to encourage more spirit and greater attendance at basketball games, has faced organizational problems.
The Dawg Pound recruits a slew of students to attend each game, but Raybould said its disunity nullifies the high turnout. Kyle said the major problem for basketball fans is a lack of knowledge about the game.
“We don’t even have the words to describe how appreciative [the basketball team is] when we have a huge crowd,” Kyle said. “But I feel like some of the fans don’t know what is going on. They really don’t know what they’re supposed to do.”
The Dawg Pound co-founder added his gratitude for the Little League’s dedication and ability to unite the crowd.
Back at the arena, Dawg Pound members take their place quietly in the middle of the bleachers while the mass of football players and Zeta Psi fraternity members congregate at the opposite end of the court from the Little League.
The end sections are the most rowdy and are responsible for a majority of the cheers — and jeers — that echo throughout the auditorium.
“People are always trying to come up with creative cheers to get everyone else to buy into,” Raybould said. “There’s definitely competition to get a good cheer and get it to catch on with people.”
The testing ground for the Little League’s chants and cheers is the free-throw line, according to soccer player Justin Song ’10. When the visiting team is at the charity stripe, the fans heckle and make fun of everything from a player’s looks and parents to his Pokemon hobby. When the Elis are at the line, the Little Leaguers hold their hands up in the shape of two Ls in place of the normal “whoosh” fingers.
At a pair of recent games against Harvard and Dartmouth, the basketball team destroyed its foes. But the Little League’s virulent taunts have become some of the group’s crowning achievements since Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker called out the Yale fans’ energy in a post-game interview.
Amaker noted the home-court atmosphere Yale fans created in the Lee Amphitheater, but Penn’s Palestra is a legendary NCAA basketball home court, too.
Surprisingly, Penn sophomore Alexandra Berger said school spirit is scarce on the Philadelphia campus. A small group — the Red and Blue Crew — supports the team at every home game, but university-imposed limitations have tempered the viciousness of their chants.
It’s halftime back at the Lee Amphitheater, and while crowds mill about the lobby, the Little League resurrects a childhood custom. The men recreate the soccer tradition of chowing down on quartered oranges at halftime, breaking out citrus slices to reenergize themselves.
The Elis then trot back onto the court to a rousing chorus of the Yale fight song, written by Cole Porter, and the Little League is back in business. The Little Leaguers grab a few snippets of conversation with the starting lineup before play begins.
“In basketball you’re right there,” said soccer player Frank Piasta ’09, who has attended basketball games with the Little League since his freshman year. “You can heckle the players a bit. It’s an enjoyable experience.”
Raybould said proximity to the court makes the Yale fan’s experience more exciting.
“I’ve been to games at [Kansas University], and it’s really impersonal and the players just hear noise,” he said. “But when we’re at the Lee Amphitheater, I know the other team can hear us and I know our Yale guys can hear us.”
School spirit may be more prevalent on a bigger campus, such as USC, but Yale’s intimacy allows the fans a chance to get to know the players they are rooting for. Cheering becomes a personal experience instead of a show of support for the team as a whole.
“There’s no personal interaction between fans and players [at games],” Marcus said of USC. “If we see a football player on campus, everyone just stops and stares for a second.”
Proximity to the court also allows the Little League easier access to the opposing team. The group sets up camp directly opposite the visitors’ bench — prime real estate for heckling fans. Raybould enjoys taunting assistant coaches, Chulick likes ribbing players on the court, Song prefers taking advantage of the foul line.
Basketball forward Travis Pinick ’09 remembered a moment at the charity stripe from a 2006 contest with Penn, when Quaker Kevin Egee missed three shots at the line after relentless mocking from the Little League and the rest of the crowd.
“It was purely because of the crowd,” Pinick said. “If you’re not up to the challenge, you can definitely be affected by an opposing team’s home crowd.”
Three or four years ago, the Little League would stake out the visitors’ bus in lawn chairs after matches until an assistant coach charged at the lounging soccer players.
“The Little League guys are pretty intense about it,” added Pinick, who enjoys playing in front of a loud crowd. “They bring out a whole horde of people, and they usually get the whole Dawg Pound behind them.”