The men’s and women’s track teams have traditionally had smaller rosters than their Ivy League competitors. The Yale men’s team has 45 athletes on their roster this year, while Dartmouth and Princeton have 69 and 64, respectively. On the women’s side, the Bulldogs have 49 on the roster, while the Big Green have 69, and the Tigers have 55.
These numbers are no mere coincidence.
In an interview featured in the September/October 2010 issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, University President Richard Levin said the percentage of recruited athletes in each Yale class has declined from 17 or 18 percent, when he became president, to 13 percent. That reduction has forced coaches to increase their reliance on walk-on athletes to fill their rosters.
“I have wanted to maintain a strong athletic program, and I believe we have demonstrated this can be accomplished without admitting quite so many athletes,” Levin said in the interview. “Some of the coaches are not happy with this, understandably. But I believe we have struck the right balance between making our athletic programs successful and wanting to make the Yale experience available for students who excel in other areas.”
Director of Athletics Tom Beckett would not comment on the effects the reduction in allotted spaces for recruited athletes has had on Yale sports, but Mark Young ’68, who recently retired as head coach of the cross-country and track teams, said the decrease in number of recruits has drop in the competitiveness and completeness of the cross-country and track and field team within the Ivy League. He added that Yale has the lowest number of recruited athletes in the Ivy League.
Dave Talbott, head squash coach, added that the scramble to find walk-on athletes applies to most Yale sports.
“I think every team to some degree is trying to find some kids who can actually contribute to their sport as supposed walk-ons,” Talbott said.
FILLING THE RECRUITMENT GAP
Cat Morris ’12 is an example of an athlete helping Talbott to compensate for the reduction in his recruiting spots.
Morris was heavily recruited by several D-III schools for tennis, but her affinity for Yale superseded her affinity for tennis, and Morris was admitted to Yale without a recruitment offer.
Yet within the first few days of school, Morris realized how much she missed being on a team and decided to join the club squash team. Her teammates encouraged her to try out for varsity.
At the time, Morris said, Talbott was looking to build up the roster because he only recruited three players that year.
Morris happily joined the team even though she would not be in the top nine that sees collegiate competition.
“It’s definitely different because in high school, playing one or two I had to be constantly focused on my sport,” Morris said. “But I still love it. In some ways it’s nice not to be in the top nine. There’s definitely more of a team focus for me, and on game days I’m there for my team members.”
Young said that while the value of walk-on talent has increased over the years, the actual impact the walk-on athletes have on the field tends to be minimal, as they often do not have the experience to be competitive in collegiate athletics.
Walk-on athletes can, however, make contributions off the field.
Alfonso Costa ’11, who walked on to the lacrosse team after his brother successfully did the same before him, said that while his playing time is limited, he tries to help his team in other ways.
“I’m someone who inspires and acts as a determination and motivation source on the team, and I realize that,” Costa said. “I embrace that position. I love it more than anything in the world. I know when my teammates go out and score more than 20 points a game, I may not step out on the court, but I know I had something to do with that.”
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
Margot Benedict ’12, a sailing walk-on, said the livelihood of the sailing program depends upon new recruits.
“We have to have a certain number [of walk-ons] every year,” she said. “It’s great we have new members of the team. It’s a culture that’s been established.”
Stephanie Schuyler ’12 said there is a very steep learning curve for new members, but paying careful attention enabled her to learn a great deal each time she went to practice. She added that skippers on the team were more than willing to devote a week of their practices to teaching walk-ons.
Sailing is not the only sport that relies heavily on walk-ons to support its program. Fencing head coach Henry Harutunian said that his program has historically had the lowest number of recruits among Yale sports, and with the reductions in recruitment slots, he is only allowed two recruits per year.
Currently, there are three walk-ons on the men’s fencing team, while the women’s team has 13 walk-ons, including the squad’s six freshmen.
Alison Barton ’14 did fence for her high school team prior to Yale, but she said it was a far cry from the collegiate level of intensity at Yale. After meeting team captain Maddie Oliver ’13 at the extracurricular bazaar, Barton said she immediately felt welcomed on the team. She added the team was especially in need of new members because the team lost many last year.
Women’s crew head coach Will Porter said the crew team also depends upon a certain number of walk-ons in order to fill his roster because the recruiting numbers are too tight. He added that about ten percent of his team is composed of walk-ons.
“When any athlete joins our team I want her to be committed to our program and our culture and understand her role on our squad and bring it every day,” Porter said in an e-mail. “The expectation is to work harder than any other team in the country.”
Madeleine Faucher ’13 was a competitive gymnast from the age of four until her senior year of high school, when she had a growth spurt, stunting her gymnastics career.
Faucher looked to crew as an alternative because it was a sport that did not require any background experience.
She said it was difficult at first to fit in with the team, as most of the girls had developed a lifelong passion for the sport. After a bout of illness, Faucher took her second semester off from crew, but said the coach approached her to return to the sport this past fall.
“Last fall I took it for granted I had the opportunity to be on a varsity team,” Faucher said. “Now, I’m more grateful.”
Faucher said that the team is not divided between recruits and walk-ons. In fact, Faucher said she had not realized that some members of the team were walk-ons until she was told.
Barbara Reinalda, head coach of softball, said the number of recruiting spots allotted to her team has also dropped over the last few years, from five to six slots per year to about four, depending on the number of players that graduate each year. She added that she does ask recruits with competitive grades to apply on their own so that she does not have to use one of her recruiting spots.
Virginia Waldrop ’12 talked to Reinalda before coming to Yale, but ultimately decided to apply as a non-recruit. Waldrop said she played three sports in high school and did not want to commit to just one during the recruitment process. Waldrop said her status as a non-recruit enabled her to guide her college decision process based on the school, rather than the softball program. Yet once she came to Yale, she said she was throwing with the team on Old Campus within the first few days of school.
“If you show people you can work with them and put in the effort, they’re going to welcome you,” Waldrop said.
Sam Haig ’13, despite being a stand-out squash player in high school, was not officially recruited by Yale. Talbott said while Haig was technically a walk-on, Yale squash did try to recruit him.
“He was also the number one academic kid in his class,” Talbott said. “We felt he was such a strong student that might get in on his own, and he did, early admission.” Talbott added had Haig not been admitted early, he might have considered using one of his recruiting spots.
WALKING ON AND WALKING OFF
Caroline Dewing ’12, a sports reporter for the News, was an avid swimmer in high school and was recruited by Middlebury and Williams. After debating the summer before her freshman year whether to try walking on to the Yale team, she eventually decided to swim not only to continue a sport she loved, but also to have an instant social group.
“I was completely treated the same way as recruits,” Dewing said. “Everyone was a very cohesive bunch across the talent and the like.”
Dewing even competed in the Ivy League Championships. Yet after her sophomore year, Dewing decided to quit the swim team, citing personal reasons over anything the team did.
“I had lost my competitive nature and the determination to get in the pool every day and compete at 100 percent,” Dewing said. “It was becoming more of a drain than it was fun. I wasn’t looking forward to competitions to anymore.”
Dewing added that her decision to quit had little to do with her status as a walk-on athlete.
Like Dewing, Antoine Crettex ’13 quit the soccer team when he stopped enjoying the game — one that he had always known and loved.
The Colombia native made the leap from club soccer to the varsity level and D-I competition in the spring of his freshman year.
“In the beginning I was in a honeymoon phase,” Crettex said. “But as the months passed, waking up early and practicing three hours a day really did me in. I stopped having the enjoyment of the game, and by the end I wasn’t looking forward to practice.”
He added his disenchantment with the game affected his overall performance and playing time. While he loved the “brotherhood” element of the team, Crettex said he decided to explore other opportunities at Yale, and at the end of his sophomore fall he decided to cut his ties with the team.
River Kim ’11, a receiver and kicker for his high school football team, decided to walk-on to the Yale football team the summer before his freshman year, and within days of training camp felt like he was already part of the team. He said football was a huge part of his life, and if he didn’t play, he would always wonder where the student-athlete life would have taken him.
Yet after playing for two seasons in JV games, Kim decided to experience other things that Yale has to offer.
“It [football] was a lot of time, and I wasn’t really getting a lot out of it,” Kim said. “I think it’s definitely easier for a walk-on to quit, just because I didn’t have any real responsibility or obligation to the coaches.”
While satisfied with his decision, Kim added he does miss the team camaraderie.
Yale’s recruiting spots for athletes may be comparably lower than other Ivy League schools, but other walk-ons also appreciate the opportunity to play for the Bulldogs.
Benjamin Gifford ’12, had a true passion for lacrosse.
“I took my jersey off my last game of high school and bawled my eyes out,” he said. Yet Gifford’s recruiting opportunities were not a good match academically, and he ultimately decided to come to Yale, choosing school over his sport.
Fortunately, he said, Shay, whose lacrosse team is approximately 15 percent walk-on, was more than willing to have Gifford try-out for the team. Gifford said he clicked almost instantly with his teammates and was never labeled a “walk-on.” Shay said Gifford’s devotion to the team is the same level as that of any recruit. All of the coaches interviewed expressed the same sentiment regarding their walk-on athletes.