The sun was scarcely a quarter of the way into the sky and the dew was quickly vanishing from the wet grass in the heat. Claremont was quiet, the campuses were empty of students and the Pomona-Pitzer soccer team was doing drills under the looming San Gabriel Mountains. Sprawled on my back after mistiming a header and falling headlong over a would-be teammate, all I could think was "Why?"
Why endure this physical anguish at this ungodly hour, all under the pretense of fun? I imagined my bed, with a glass of ice-water on the nightstand. Watermelon for breakfast. I sucked in a breath of Southern California air only to have my fantasy interrupted: "Nick, get off the ground and follow that ball up!" Coach's orders. I rose quickly and chased after the errant pass. This was the second day of tryouts. I would last only three more.
In the end, mixed with my disappointment at being cut, I must say there was also relief. Returning to a humane schedule where days would be separated by full nights of sleep had appeal. But for me soccer was only a pipe dream. For others, Sagehen sports are a way of life that transcends the priorities of a regular college schedule.
Competitive sports, the realm of the student athlete, are an oft-overlooked aspect of life at a college that has earned its reputation for academic excellence. But recently the Sagehen has been let out of its coop. In the past few years some of Pomona-Pitzer's most visible programs have blossomed.
The men's basketball program has won six SCIAC championships and accrued an 82-16 conference record over the past seven years. The football program finds itself in a similar situation with a 31-10 record in the past five years, capped by a 7-1 season in 1999. The women's basketball team has become a perennial contender with a recent conference record of 38-10. The swimming and track-and-field programs send athletes to nationals almost every year. And just last spring, in tennis, the unheralded women's doubles team of Meagan Gould '01 and Sheree Schwartz '01 swept to the national Division III title in straight sets.
Clearly, something is working. More focus on full-time coaching, more effective recruiting, better facilities and good management have all played a role in the athletic department's success. Above all, however, and implicit to the success of all of the Sagehen programs, is the ability of the students who participate in them to balance a dynamic college lifestyle with a demanding athletic schedule.
What motivates these students? And what is the price they pay?
Football Coach Roger Caron, who previously coached at Williams College and, before that, played in the NFL, knows that during the football season his players are heavily overworked, sometimes more than they are given credit for. "Our kids do more in season than a lot of Division I athletes because we don't have as many guys on the team. Coupled with academics, they're clearly stretched thin."
Swim Coach Gary Troyer, who has been coaching Sagehen aquatics for 30 years, agreed, adding that it takes the rare individual to succeed both academically and athletically. "I've had some great athletes stop playing because they wanted to excel in academics," he said. "Especially at Pomona, student-athletes need to have their priorities in the right place to succeed at school and in sports."
For the average student-athlete the daily grind consists of study and practice, followed by more study and practice. Football Co-Captain and tailback Ryan Hattersley '01, grimacing after a tough practice, described his routine: "I get up in the morning and go to class, eat lunch with all my friends and then go to my afternoon classes. But when the bell rings and everyone else goes off to recess, my real day is just beginning. That's when I go get padded up for practice. We practice till the sun goes down. After that it's all I can do not to fall asleep after dinner. Then, the next day, you just do it again."
The workload as a member of the women's basketball team forces Gre'Juana Dennis '03 to prioritize her time and make difficult compromises. "It's tough to play ball and keep up," she said. "I have to prioritize my work and my sport. I love basketball--but even with an average load it gets really hard."
Clearly something has to give, and for most athletes, that something is personal time. "My social life is definitely what takes a hit when basketball season starts," said Travis Bray '01. "Playing forces me to make time for studying and form a strict schedule. School comes first, and basketball has to come next. That doesn't leave time for much else."
For many student-athletes--like women's basketball prospect Lauren Kong '03, who passed up the opportunity to play during her freshman year and is considering playing this season--that is cause for apprehension. "I'm not sure if I am willing to give up the other aspects of my life in order to play basketball," Kong said. "You have to really love it."
Just to get by in school while playing a sport requires discipline and commitment. To excel academically would seem nearly impossible. Susan Houge '02, who finished 1999-2000 with a perfect GPA, described how she copes with playing soccer, staying active in the community and maintaining high academic standards: "Soccer forces me to be a lot more efficient. I start papers two weeks in advance and I always plan my life around my soccer schedule. The biggest thing for me is time management. Once you have that down, things kind of fall into place."
Still, each year some talented athletes decide the price of participation has grown too high. Jeff Raskin '03, one of last year's football heroes with his winning field-goal in the overtime victory at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, explained his reasons for not returning to the field: "To be premed and play football was extremely hard last year and I expected it would only get tougher. I sat down with my dad and talked it over and I came to the realization that becoming a doctor is far more important to me than anything else."
Another successful student-athlete who opted out of varsity sports cited different reasons: "You have to have a lot more personal drive to compete here than you did in high school. You don't get a lot of credit from the community here like student-athletes do elsewhere, and there's so much more that you're missing out on because of all that Pomona has to offer."
In the end, it's a very personal assessment of cost and reward that all student-athletes must make for themselves.
"The crux of Division III athletics is that you play for yourself and for your own reasons," said football player Andrew Kessler '03. "You have to really gain from it personally or else you won't feel the benefits."
As Hattersley put it: "Pomona is full of people who choose their battles, and some people put sports at the top of their list."
For athletes who are passionate about their sport it's all worth it. "Why do we play through pain and practice when we've got homework to do?" Hattersley asked. "For me, it's because I've been playing for 10 years and this is the culmination of it all. I've worked for a long time to get here and playing means something to me personally that I couldn't find doing anything else."
Even those who leave--however compelling their reason--rarely do so without regret. Raskin, who's now been off the field for nearly a year, also considers some parts of the varsity experience irreplaceable: "I miss a lot of things about football, but the thing I miss more than anything is the camaraderie out there."
Basketball Coach Charles Katsiaficas describes the unique phenomenon of competitive sports as "a setting that is very hard to match as far as the educational opportunities that present themselves. You learn to give yourself up for the good of a unit; you learn a great deal of discipline; but--it's true--above all, you have fun."
For me, having to watch the soccer games from the sideline was something of a blessing in disguise. But my failure on that field did not stop me from trying my hand on a another. That spring I returned to the same grass where I had once lain dazed and daydreaming among soccer players and started to throw the javelin for the track-and-field team. I admit I am not the most gifted javelin thrower, but as I watch the javelin leave my hand and hang in the orange afternoon light, I remember why I love to participate in athletics. I walk after the ancient implement side-by-side with my throwing partner and dislodge it from the ground. We turn around and chuck our javelins again, one after another. Sometimes we talk together and just walk together in silence.
It is the best time of my day.