|Vol.24, No. 01||Sept. 4, 1998|
Classes will be several days from their first bell when Columbia inaugurates the Lions' '98 fall sports season.
Although varsity football's game against Dartmouth this Saturday is in fact just a scrimmage, so really no more than an "unofficial" fall opener, it nonetheless indicates to Columbia sports fans that it's not too soon to look at some of the teams and their members likely to wear the Light Blue and White in the winner's circle before the end of the season.
The touts and prognosticators in and around Dodge Physical Fitness Center have made men's cross country and women's soccer this season's frontrunners, and the football team the darkhorse.
Told that his harriers are fall favorites, Coach Willy Wood says "Uh-oh, it seems that whenever you're picked to finish first, you just..." and he whistles a bomb-dropping sound and makes a diving motion with his left hand. Then he laughs, launching into an excited explanation of why this team could be the strongest in almost 20 years, when Columbia last won the Heptagonals.
"We lost only one guy from the '97 squad, which came in second at Hep's," Wood says. "In our first three spots (five runners score in an XC meet) we've got seniors Mike Grant and Tom Kloos, and junior Jason Gibbons, all of whom are top-ten finishers in any regular season meet."
Wood explains that for the remaining two spots he has four runners: Amerigo Rossi and Ray Biersbach, a senior and junior respectively, sophomore James Langstine and freshman John Collopy. Their speed and competitiveness provide the team with depth and scoring punch.
"This year we have a great attitude that carried over from last year's winning season, and even more experience and maturity," Wood says. "I'm really optimistic."
Nevertheless, he cautions that the competition has also improved; that any one of six teams could take the conference, with Princeton, last year's Hep's champ, probably the Lion's toughest opponent.
Wood's superstition was Kevin McCarthy's reality last year. His women's soccer team, tapped to challenge for the Ivy crown after a breakthrough '96 campaign, fell disappointingly short of expectations-particularly of its own.
"We were without a doubt still in the process of learning how to deal with success and with a higher set of expectations," McCarthy says. "Added to that, last fall we upgraded our schedule and the success we had meant we could no longer sneak up on other teams."
This fall, with many of the key starters from '97 back, McCarthy assures that the team has the maturity to perform up to its potential. The evidence, he points out, was shown as early as last spring when the Columbia women beat Rutgers, a Big East team, in the Collegiate Cup.
"The commitment and effort produced by our returning players in the spring convinced me they want to take back the respect they lost," he says. "They're out to prove that they're not just a flash-in-the-pan but one of the better programs in the East."
Look for co-captain Toshe Ford, a senior, and juniors Ali Ahern and Rachel Toomey, all from Needham, Mass., as well as co-captain and junior Katie Gifford, to be the mainstays of what McCarthy promises will be a "relentless attacking team."
Relentless attack is what Light-Blue football fans hope they'll see in their gridders this fall. Here, too, was a team whose brilliance in '96 - an 8-2 record that captured headlines coast-to-coast, drawing national attention to Columbia - could not be sustained in '97; the Lions limped to 4-6 (one win was a Penn forfeit).
"Last year we lost the work ethic we had in '96," head coach Ray Tellier says, "so we just weren't as physical as we should have been." He's sure, however, that this year's squad doesn't want to repeat that mistake. "Our seniors have been through the good and the bad, and believe me they want to get back to the good."
The '97 team is deeper, stronger and in better condition than its predecessor, according to Tellier, so the key to its success will be individual play at crucial positions - particularly at quarterback.
"Quaterback is a big concern," Tellier says. "We've got to produce results at quarterback or else we'll struggle, and we're still not sure who we can count on to produce."
The Lions have a passel of passers out of which senior Paris Childress seems the early favorite. His inconsistent play, however, has left the door open for anyone of several candidates, from senior Ted Schroeder to freshman Jeff McCall, to become the starting signal caller.
On defense, the coach points to pass coverage as a potential weak spot. Only senior quad-captain Chris Tillotson returns to what was for years one of the Lions' strongest areas of play. Tellier looks to juniors Andre Ogundare and Mike Martinic to fill the corners. Both have the athletic ability to do the job, but their lack of experience raises questions. Jason Bivens, a senior and a speedy tailback, who was lost to a knee injury in last season's second game, will jump to strong safety, where his size and skills are well suited to the task.
"Because there's real parity in this league, it's the little things this season that will make the difference in each game," Tellier says. "There'll be a very fine line between winning and losing."
Coach Tellier and his charges will tread that line in earnest starting Sept. 19 when Harvard arrives at Baker Field to kick-off the '98 Ivy campaign. Also that day, the Light Blues will take on Crimson sides in men's and women's soccer and in field hockey.
The fall's first intercollegiate action begins earlier, however, on the weekend of September 11. On that Friday, Kevin McCarthy's squad along with Field Hockey and Volleyball are slated to play. Schedules are available in Dodge and on the Web. Willy Wood's harriers and men's soccer get their first taste of competition on Sat., Sept. 12.