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The modernization of the pitcher

in Columns/Sports by

One day in the summer of 2015, I found myself on a seemingly endless three hour drive from my home in Washington, DC to Atlantic City, MD. The old pitching hermit my dad said we were meeting to work with awaited at the other side. After the excruciating drive through cornfields, woods, and unpaved roads, we finally arrived at a ramshackle pitching facility in an abandoned warehouse in the woods. Upon meeting the man and paying three hundred dollars for his “advanced arm care program,” I found myself seriously questioning the legitimacy of this man‘s renown baseball tutelage. However, for the next three hours, I found myself undergoing one of the most physically challenging baseball and weight programs I have ever seen. Rejuvenated by the strenuous day and expert refinement, I took on the program as a long-term project to improve my endurance, arm strength, and velocity as a pitcher.

For all of those who are not familiar with baseball, the sport seems to lack much physical ability between standing for large periods of time and the endless flow of sunflower seeds, bubble gum, and Gatorade. However, the athletic ability required throughout the game derives from a far greater technical basis. Particularly at the position of pitcher, quite arguably the most important in the game, the combination of brute strength, endurance, and mental toughness make the prospects of success for the average person quite slim. On top of that, the risk of detrimental injury as a pitcher remains quite high as the constant wear and tear weakens the tendons and muscles in the arm irreparably. Taking a further step past basic arm care, to be more competitive, pitchers constantly seek to improve their arm strength such that they can throw faster — a process that can add even more stress to the developing arm.

Therefore, from Little League to the MLB (Major League Baseball), the never-ending question of how to care for pitchers physically encounters constant scrutiny. At the most basic levels, coaches generally restrain their young pitchers to pitch limits, such that the children can grow and potentially be more successful when games matter more. However, beyond that, the biological facts and baseball folklore constantly intertwine to create a confusing mashup of eclectic training styles, all with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, for many professionals, the pressure to succeed debilitates their mental preparations, thereby affecting their performance on the field. However, for others, the same strive to succeed leads to cheating whether through performance-enhancing drugs, altered equipment, or some other means. Therefore, this topic widely and dramatically affects the play of the game and the culture of the sport.

Here at Swarthmore, the baseball program generally follows a strict arm care regimen to combat the constant strain undertaken in the rigor of games. The seven-day workout schedule generally consists of only a few days of actual throwing, supplemented with other drills — weighted balls, elastic Jaeger band work, sprinting, hip mobility exercises, and long-distance running among a slew of others. However, on top of these workouts, each pitcher has their own individual style to caring for their arm, ranging from unique throwing drills to holding towels as they throw. The culmination of this has resulted in a relativelyhealthy and successful pitching staff. The general arm care of pitchers at all levels of talent and competition is an extremely important science.

However, just as baseball statistics have expanded in their breadth and analysis, so too has this arm care science modernized to better aid the pitcher. Similar to football’s current issue with concussion technology and minimizing the damage to the brain through the daily rigor of the sport, baseball too must come to terms with its rapidly increasing arm injury problem that takes away the bright futures of so many young pitchers. Simply sitting in a discussion between a trainer with the Philadelphia Phillies organization and the Swarthmore pitching staff, it became quite clear that many pitchers actually had been taught incorrect and potentially harmful methods in the past for strengthening and caring for their arm.

Two young MLB superstar prospects, Baltimore Orioles’ Dylan Bundy and Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer, who played an integral role in their respective teams’ playoff runs last year, both swear by the science of Alan Jaeger (whose elastic band workouts Swarthmore baseball uses extensively). Both pitchers have thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour during certain drills with impressive success, but Bundy has undergone the fated Tommy John surgery, calling into question the legitimacy of their long-distance throwing program. Others swear by modern tactics such as biometrics, as Swarthmore baseball implemented via a University of Pennsylvania initiated science lab, or more old-fashioned lifting and running techniques. Nevertheless, the combination of these large scientific progressions with the individual flair of baseball players everywhere has created a sport far more aware of the injuries and care necessary to be successful in the sport.

However, not only has biomedical progress aided the plight of the modern pitcher, but psychology has made leaps and bounds in the field of high-pressure performance. It is often described of pitchers that they control the game entirely, as their performance sets the tone for the rest of the game. That high intensity, coupled with being the center of attention on each played, can debilitate even the most talented of pitchers with one fell swoop. Recently, former professional pitcher Rick Ankiel published a memoir, in which he admitted to drinking vodka before games to calm the nerves of being the main actor on baseball’s biggest stage. At the same time, it is also rumored that legendary ace, Dock Ellis, even pitched a no-hitter on LSD. On account of all of this mental stress, psychologists now have calming techniques for these pitchers in high-intensity situations that let them slow the game down, focus better, and perform at a far higher level.

All of this scientific empirical evidence just adds to the rhetoric already surrounding the betterment of pitcher performance. In the rapidly modernizing world, the game has sought to keep up with the technology and speed of daily life, and the arm and mental care of pitchers has been just one facet of this initiative. It has enabled pitchers to come more prepared to succeed and stay healthy, and has altered the game for the best. Hopefully at Swarthmore, the bright future scholars we produce will further the progress already made thus far.

Westbrook won’t be MVP but Leonard might

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As the regular season of the NBA draws to a close, talk of potential MVP picks has heated up. Last night’s games concluded the regular season and the playoffs will begin on Saturday. On June 26, the NBA will hold an awards show, announcing the 2016-2017 season MVP, as well as other major awards. Some time between now and then, a large group of North American sportswriters and broadcasters will be sending in ballots with their top five picks for MVP ranked. As the MVP is actually decided by a panel of sports journalists, the buzz that a player has as a potential MVP pick may genuinely affect the votes. Despite this, for some bizarre reason, some patterns in the history of NBA MVP picks seem to suggest that two most buzzed-about candidates actually have the odds stacked against them.

Although the choice for MVP is currently hotly debated, a general consensus has emerged around a top four potential picks: the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Lebron James. Tyler Pasko’s article for the March 23 edition of the Phoenix analyzed the the reasons each of these players is a notable contender for the award. Since then, discussion of potential contenders has condensed around Westbrook and Harden. This seems somewhat natural, they have the highest stats of the four and are also easier to compare to each other than to James or Leonard. Westbrook and Harden are both guards, Westbrook is in his ninth season at 28 while Harden is in his eighth season at 27, and they’ve both put on incredible offensive performances. Westbrook is setting records with an average of 31.9 points per game, 10.4 assists per game, and 10.7 rebounds per game while Harden is following close behind with 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds. Westbrook is leading the league in points, Harden is leading the league in assists. Supporters of Harden counter Westbrook’s greater average points and rebounds by pointing out that the Rockets have 7 more wins than the Thunder and wins are all that matter because they suggest that Harden’s offense is ultimately more successful. Historical MVP choices indicate that, in fact, wins do matter, but also that neither Harden or Westbrook is actually winning enough to have a good shot at the MVP title.

To test the importance of wins in determining the choice for MVP, we’ve aggregated data on MVP winners since the 1980-1981 season, when the NBA switch from player voting to the current system of a panel of sports journalists. By examining win percentages, instead of raw win numbers we’re able to include the two years with shortened seasons due to lockouts, 1989-1999 and 2011-2012. There are however, a few notable records concerning raw win numbers. Excluding the two lockout seasons, no NBA MVP since 1980-1981 has ever won less than 50 games that season, and there are only two years in which the MVP won fewer than 56 games: Michael Jordan in 1987-1988 and Steve Nash in 2005-2006.

What these records make clear is that Westbrook winning MVP would be as record-breaking as his stats, but not in a good way. No prior MVP has ever been playing on a team doing as poorly as the Thunder. Similarly, due to a post-All-Star-break slump, the Cavs now have a low enough win percentage that the only MVP winner whose team was losing as  much was Jordan’s ‘88 Bulls, while the Rockets, despite a tremendous effort from Harden, have a record very similar to Nash’s ‘06 Suns. The only one of the top four picks who should be an MVP contender, based on past MVP team performance, is Kawhi Leonard.

We can also consult the records of team conference standings as they enter the playoffs to identify trends in the relationship between team performance and MVP selection. As it happens, every team that an MVP was playing for was either first or second in their conference that year, with the single exception of Jordan’s ‘88 Bulls.

 

Year MVP Team Conference Standing
2015-2016 Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 1
2014-2015 Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 1
2013-2014 Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder 2
2012-2013 LeBron James Miami Heat 1
2011-2012 LeBron James Miami Heat 2
2010-2011 Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls 1
2009-2010 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 1
2008-2009 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 1
2007-2008 Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 1
2006-2007 Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks 1
2005-2006 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns 2
2004-2005 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns 1
2003-2004 Kevin Garnett Minnesota Timberwolves 1
2002-2003 Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 1
2001-2002 Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 2
2000-2001 Allen Iverson Philadelphia 76ers 1
1999-2000 Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers 1
1998-1999 Karl Malone Utah Jazz 2
1997-1998 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1996-1997 Karl Malone Utah Jazz 1
1995-1996 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1994-1995 David Robinson San Antonio Spurs 1
1993-1994 Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 2
1992-1993 Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns 1
1991-1992 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1990-1991 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1989-1990 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1988-1989 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1987-1988 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 3
1986-1987 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1985-1986 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1984-1985 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1983-1984 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1982-1983 Moses Malone Philadelphia 76ers 1
1981-1982 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 2
1980-1981 Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers 2

 

If we were to only consider candidates for MVP whose teams are first or second in their conference, Harden and Westbrook would both be eliminated. Given that Westbrook’s relentless triple-doubles have broken NBA records, some may assume that this year could see a break from the pattern of past MVP picks to recognize his truly historic achievements. However, all past NBA picks indicate that this will not happen.

The greatest outlier in the historical data is clearly Jordan in ‘88. This award, was in fact, recognizing a herculean effort; Jordan led the league in both points and assists and ended up winning Defensive Player of the Year in addition to MVP, while managing to win 50 games, earning the Bulls the third spot in their conference. While this may seem encouraging for Westbrook, it is important to note that Westbrook has not been playing like Jordan. In comparison to Jordan’s dominant performances on both sides of the court, Westbrook’s defense has been below average.

Examining Jordan’s 1986-1987 season also yield disappointing precedents for Westbrook. In this season, he became the first person not named Wilt Chamberlain to score over 3,000 points in a single season, while also recording 125 blocks and 236 steals. Despite this, the Bulls only won 40 games and were eighth in the conference and Jordan lost out on MVP to Magic Johnson, which is not promising for Westbrook. In fact, although both Westbrook and Harden are displaying amazing offensive ability this season, neither are comparable to Jordan in ‘88 due to their below average defensive performance. The disparity is evident in the stats: Jordan’s ‘88 performance included the seventh most in steals in a single season, while Harden and Westbrook this year have notched the first and second most turnovers in a single season.

A more hopeful comparison for Harden is Nash’s ‘06 MVP win. Just like Harden, Nash led the season in assists that year. Harden is actually putting up better stats than Nash did that year. Although Nash was shooting better from the line, Harden has almost twice as many rebounds and just over 10 more points per game. Nash didn’t have the best stats of the season; just like Harden, Nash was given credit for adept leadership of a powerful offense beyond what is reflected in his stats. In fact, they’ve both led blistering offenses architected by the same man, Coach Mike D’Antoni. Nash’s MVP wins are still somewhat controversial, however, if he had Harden’s stats, they probably wouldn’t be. One factor that may work against Harden is that in the last 10 years, MVP voters have demonstrated a stronger preference for winning teams, selecting only two MVP’s whose teams did not finish first in their conference.

Although James is averaging more assists and rebounds than he ever has, historical records indicate that his MVP chances are small. His stats are good but worse than Westbrook and Harden, in addition to being worse in many ways than his own past stats. When James won the MVP award in the past, he was scoring more points, putting up better defensive stats, and winning more games. The Cavs’ current win percentage is not only lower than any of James’ win percentages when he won MVP, but lower than all MVP win percentages except Jordan in ‘88.

The one contender boosted by historical evidence is Kawhi Leonard. Although his 25.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game may seem low in comparison to Westbrook and Harden, they represent significant growth in offensive capability for Leonard, who won Defensive Player of the Year the past two years. Leonard has been able to maintain strong defense while increasing scoring capability making him the one of the best all around players in the league. Although MVP considerations seem to largely revolve around offensive performance, defensive play is certainly a factor, as shown by Jordan’s anomalous ‘88 win. More importantly, perhaps, Leonard is winning. Not only on are the Spurs winning, they’re winning because of Leonard. Leonard ranks fourth in Win Shares, a measure of teams wins contributed by the player, behind Harden, Rudy Gobert, and Jimmy Butler. Leonard’s Player Efficiency Rating, a standardized stat representing per-minute production, is beats out all three of the players who contributed more wins than him. The only player who played more than 40 games to have a higher PER than Leonard is actually Westbrook. These advanced stats go to show despite his lower P/A/R, Leonard’s contributions to his team are absolutely on the level of the other MVP candidates, while winning more games than all of them.

Of course, predicting an MVP pick with greater emphasis on winning games to reflect historic trends also opens up the possibility of Steph Curry picking up his third year MVP in a row. For this reason, many sports journalists have been including Curry as a fifth potential MVP candidates and some include the first-in-the-Eastern-Conference Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas as a sixth. However, given that the MVP is chosen by sports journalists, it’s entirely possible that the best indicator for the MVP choice is simply hype and the past trends simply reflect the fact that people are normally more excited about winning teams. If this is true, than the MVP hype train behind Harden may very well carry him to becoming a new outlier point on the MVP team win percentage graph.

A comprehensive analysis of athletes and their majors

in Columns/Sports by

Do all athletes really major in Economics? Conventional wisdom at many Division I schools might lead us to believe that yes, they do. Economics at most colleges and universities is perhaps the most popular major among athletes, with many Division I athletes following traditional business paths. A 2015 study in the Bleacher Report of the “Big Five,” the five power Division 1 Conferences for football (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, and the Pac-12), found that an overwhelming number of football players participated in business and related majors. Other popular majors included sports administration, communications, and kinesiology and exercise sciences. However, some famous Division I athletes have followed much more non-conventional paths. For example, Dikembe Mutombo, the former NBA star, majored in Linguistics and Diplomacy in his time at Georgetown. Michael Jordan majored in Geography during his time at the University of North Carolina. This is all to say that particularly in the Division I sphere, majors are more often centered around pre-professional tracks: those that create a direct path into a job in finance, sports administration, consulting, or for athletes like Michael Jordan, a side-career in mapmaking!

What is different about the Division III scene, particularly Swarthmore College? Are there discernible differences between a student-athlete at Swarthmore College and their educational experience versus a football player at the University of Michigan? The Phoenix Digital Ops team put together a comprehensive analysis of male and female athletes in the 2015-16 sports season, and their declared majors. We aimed to hypothesize what a top-tier liberal arts education pushes for our student-athletes. Do our athletes follow similar tracks to the ones Division I athletes are on, or does Swarthmore push a different type of academic creativity that transcends the traditional pre-professional tracks?

For the ten varsity male sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 103 declared majors among the juniors and senior classes of each team, which includes double majors. For example, if a Men’s Varsity Tennis athlete double majored in Engineering and Psychology, this would be counted twice in our tally. 26% of male athletes majored in Economics. Men’s Lacrosse had the highest percentage of Economics majors on a single sports team, with 52% of the players having declared Economics majors. The second highest declared major for male athletes was Engineering, at 14.5%. This was followed by political science, computer science, psychology, and math. Majors that were not represented among men’s athletes during the 2015-16 year included Environmental Studies, Greek, German Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies (many being regularized special majors).

Ian Cairns ’20 responded to the data compiled by the Phoenix Digital Ops Team, and added his own experiences as an athlete choosing his prospective major.

“I’m from Detroit, Michigan and I’m a member of the Men’s Varsity Soccer team. Currently, I’m an intended Economics major, with an undecided minor. I’m not surprised by the amount of Economics majors on some of the male sports teams. That being said, at a place like Swarthmore, there are a lot of abstract and non-traditional majors that are offered too.”

Cairns went on to comment on the difference between a Swarthmore education and once at a bigger university.

“I would definitely say at Swarthmore, there is encouragement for athletes to go outside the traditional majors. I know at larger institutions, it is common to apply to a certain school within the university for your major. I had a lot of friends who went to the engineering school at the University of Michigan, where the distribution requirements make it much different from a liberal arts school like Swarthmore. That being said, both have their benefits; I don’t really have a bias to either.”

This sentiment reflected by Cairns is largely backed up in the data. Some varsity athletes end up going outside the traditional majors, while many do major in traditional majors like Economics, Biology, Engineering, etc.

For the ten women’s varsity sports in the 2015-16 season, there were 85 declared majors among the junior and senior varsity athletes. Interestingly enough, the data compiled was vastly different in comparison to the male athletes results. The most popular major among female athletes was biology, which accounted for 14% of the declared majors. This was followed by psychology at 11%, political science at 10%, education at 8%, and economics and history at 7%. Majors that were not represented among women’s varsity athletes included cognitive science, and Chinese.

The data shows us that Swarthmore varsity athletes are really not that much different than the average Swarthmore student. The most popular majors across gender were Economics, Engineering, Biology, Psychology, Political Science, Computer Science, and Math. This almost directly mirrors the most popular majors among the Swarthmore student body as a whole. The largest majors discrepancy for athletes versus the student body was Economics, as 18% of athletes majored in Economics, as opposed to 13% for the student body, which isn’t particularly  significant. Is there something about a Swarthmore education that differs from a larger institution? For one, our data shows us that while Swarthmore varsity athletes follow many of the traditional majors that athletes and students across the country declare, there also exists a diversification in the data that we might not necessarily see at a non-liberal arts school. Out of every major in the school, every single one is represented by at least one varsity athlete. From gender studies to economics, a critical analysis of the data reveals that the varsity athletes at this school are just as academically diverse as the rest of the school. While many traditional majors are represented, athletes are declared majors in every single major on campus. It is clear that the stereotype that all athletes are some type of Economics or business major is transcended at Swarthmore. Our academic mission promotes intellectual curiosity and the liberal arts as a tool to discover your passion. Swarthmore varsity athletes and the student body at large embody just that.

Celebrating Our National Pastime’s Opening Day

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Although the Philadelphia Phillies did not get to start Opening Day with a home game on Monday, 12 other teams got to experience the joys of playing with a rowdy and passionate fan base behind them at home for the first day of baseball season. I know players at any level get those butterflies in their stomachs before the first games of their seasons. But not all of us get the pleasure of having thousands of fans on the edge of their seats, with same butterflies, cheering on their teams.

Opening Day is a two-part event with three games on Sunday and 12 on Monday, making for quite a baseball-packed weekend.  Each team will get to play 162 games in their regular season, so the outcome of this one game does not hold a lot of weight in season statistics. However, it is a great opportunity to revitalize the fanbase’s energy and an opportunity for some players to show that this is going to be their year to shine.

In a few shining moments of Sunday and Monday’s games, we got glimpses of greatness from the classic stars like Madison Bumgarner, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Clayton Kershaw. Bumgarner became the second pitcher in history to have multiple home runs on Opening Day. With 16 career home runs, Bumgarner is a player often talked about as a dual threat with pitching and hitting. Even though his batting average (.187) may sometimes fall flat in comparison to position players, among pitchers he still stands as an impressive hitter. Maybe this year he will make an even bigger name for himself.

Then, of course, Mike Trout had to remind us all that he is the best of the best. For some of us, myself included, we have to get the perfect pitch and then rotate into a mechanically stunning swing to even have a shot at a home run, but for others — namely Mike Trout — a mistaken swing can lead to a home run. I guess that’s just how it works when you’re exceptional. As not to be left out, Bryce Harper hit his fifth Opening Day home run, setting high expectations for the season for himself once again.

Opening Day had numerous other home runs and was a pretty packed sequence of  terrific baseball overall, but there was plenty of stellar pitching as well. Bumgarner was just about as good on the mound as he was at the plate, tossing 7 innings while striking out 11.  Another huge name in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, left Dodgers fans with a lot to be excited about this season. In his seventh consecutive Opening Day start, Kershaw came out after seven innings having only given up two hits. Not a bad way to start the season.

Of course, the big names and their successes are not all that matter about Opening Day. In fact, some of the ridiculous stats that are reported out are almost laughable. For instance, though Kershaw’s ERA on Opening Day games and Bumgarner’s record number of home runs for a pitcher on Opening Day are impressive feats, they are not that relevant to overall outcome of the season. However, the creation of arbitrary measures for Opening Day just proves the significance of the day for the league and all those baseball fans who were quite ready to move past spring training games.

As teams return to their hometowns, it is almost disappointing that there is not a bigger uproar over the day. I would be overjoyed to spend a day at the ballpark with friends and my favorite team (regrettably, the Phillies did not get a home opener) to relish in baseball’s return to center stage.

All being said, Opening Day 2017 had some amazing performances and plenty of enjoyment for those who attended. Baseball is the ultimate American pastime and hopefully more of us will pay attention to the triumphant return of teams to their home stadiums, while basking in the wonderful weather and interacting with the spirited fans. If you ever get the opportunity to go to an Opening Day, I highly recommend it for whatever team you support. But if you’re missing baseball in general, there are always some Phillies games right down the road!

Swat Celebrates NCAA DIII Week

in Columns/Sports/Uncategorized by

April 3 through April 9 is NCAA Division III week, a national event celebrating Division III student-athletes and their impact on the campus communities of the colleges and universities that they attend. This week, the athletic programs of Division III institutions around the country will be holding events highlighting accomplishments in athletics, academics, or community service. Swarthmore’s Division III week events will include program focused around athletic competitions, all-campus events, and community service.

The Division III week events at the college have been coordinated by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, or SAAC, at the college. Different iterations of the committee also exist at the Conference and Division level. Michael Rubayo ’17, who plays for the men’s basketball team, and Associate Athletic Director Nnenna Akotaobi represent the college in the Centennial Conference SAAC as well as representing the Centennial Conference in the NCAA Division III SAAC.

“Division III Week at Swarthmore is hosted by the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. It is an opportunity for SAAC to organize events and activities that celebrate the student-athlete community, thank the support staff that make their participation in sport possible, and engage in service projects that live out the Division III and Swarthmore mission,” Akotaobi explained.

Division III athletics does not traditionally have the widespread viewership or fanbases of athletics in other Divisions. In response to this, Division III week was created by the NCAA Division III administration in order to highlight the the achievements of Division III student-athletes and their role in their campus communities.

“Division III within the NCAA is the only division that doesn’t [allocate] any money for the schools to play sports. And so maybe five, six years ago, the Division III administration in Indianapolis decided to put together Division III week to celebrate why the Division III student-athletes chose to play at the Division III level,” said Rubayo.

“DIII Week is a nationwide celebration of the NCAA’s largest Division with over 180,000 student-athletes, including the approximately 450 students who participate in intercollegiate athletics at Swarthmore. This annual celebration is now in its sixth year. During the week-long celebration, Swarthmore and its divisional peers are able to showcase the philosophy of Division III and the things that make our Division and student-athletes unique,” said Akotaobi.

The difference between DIII athletics and DI athletics may be exacerbated on Swarthmore’s campus, where academics are a serious and time-consuming part of every student’s life. So, student attendance at athletic competitions is not always high. Before her career in athletic administration, Akotaobi was herself a DI athlete, having an impressive basketball career at the University of Denver. After beginning a career in DIII athletic administration, Akotaobi gained a unique perspective on the differences between the collegiate experiences of DI and DIII student athletes.

Division III provides many more opportunities for balance than I had as a Division I student-athlete. I had an incredible undergraduate experience, and I was quite fortunate to have participated in a sport and receive an athletic scholarship, but my obligations for four years were limited in scope. My priorities were primarily my academic work and my team,” said Akotaobi.

Although many student-athletes at Swarthmore dedicate substantial time and work to their sport, often including two-hour practices six days a week, the college’s academics are quite demanding across the board. Student-athletes at the college are given the space to and encouraged to pursue their other influences through the wide variety of clubs, groups, and extracurricular activities that can be found at the college.

“In many ways, I envy the experiences of the student-athletes at Swarthmore who are able to compete in their sport at a high level while being fully engaged in campus life. They explore their passions outside of their respective playing arenas, and enjoy opportunities to study abroad, engage in research and other academic pursuits outside of the classroom, hold membership in clubs and organizations, pursue employment and internships, and immerse themselves in the social life of the College,” said Akotaobi. “Many of these things were not a part of my collegiate experience. Division III Week is a great way to honor multidimensional students who participate in athletics on this campus while following their other passions and interests.”

Rubayo concurred, noting that student-athletes at the college take part in a variety of campus groups and activities, allowing sports to be a facet of, instead of the whole of, their identities.

“We like to enjoy more than just sports. We love sports, but it’s just a part of us, it doesn’t necessarily define us. You’ll see that with, on our campus, a lot of athletes in a cappella groups, RnM, doing all sorts of stuff – orchestra, all these different clubs around campus,” said Rubayo.

The events planned for Division III week at the college include social media takeovers, food offered before or during sports games, an all campus dodgeball tournament, and several service events. This programming was chosen to allow students to showcase their athletic achievements, increase student engagement with Swat sports, and allow student-athletes to give back to their campus community.

“There’s three D’s in Division III which are the three main principles: discover, develop, and dedicate. So, it’s the idea of highlighting what we do and sort of apply those principles. Discover what we do beyond the field, the court, but also what we do on it. Develop the idea of a growing community and try to highlight that we’re more than just student athletes, we’re students first, that’s a big thing in Division III. And then show how dedicated we are, not just on the field, on the court, but in the classroom, in the orchestra pit, on the dance floor,” said Rubayo.

Akotaobi explained that the various events each have different roles in fulfilling the mission of DIII week, as outlined by SAAC and the NCAA.

“The social events are an opportunity for both students and student-athletes to come together in fellowship and build community. The service activities like the Sharples Takeover and the Youth Sports Clinic are integral to SAAC’s mission and their stated purpose of ‘Cultivate[ing] and strengthen[ing] relationships between the athletic community and the campus community…’. The social media takeovers are a nice way for student-athletes to showcase their daily lives,” said Akotaobi.

The food events include an ice cream stand at the women’s lacrosse game on Wednesday in partnership with the President’s Office, as well as a barbeque cookout that will be held during the baseball games this Saturday.

The service events include student-athletes helping to serve food in Sharples on Monday, fundraising for the Special Olympics throughout the week, and student-athletes teaching local children their sports on Sunday.

“DIII itself sponsors the Special Olympics, so we’re gonna be raising money all week for Special Olympics at all of our events. Sunday we’re doing a Youth in Sports day, so we’ve invited kindergarteners through sixth graders from around the region to come hang out for free for two, two and a half hours with the student-athletes and they’re gonna give them an introduction to their sport and just have some fun,” said Rubayo.

In addition to the Youth in Sports day and baseball barbeque cookout this weekend, students have this Friday’s all campus five-on-five dodgeball tournament to look forward to. With community events like those during DIII Week, the emergence of dominant teams including women’s soccer, men’s basketball, and men’s swimming, athletics at the college appear to be rising to a more integral position in campus culture.

 

Ball Family Balls Hard

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For the last year, the basketball world has focused heavily on everything related to the Ball family. Whether it be Lavar Ball (the father of the family) and his antics or one of the three sons, LaMelo, LiAngelo, or Lonzo having a historic night on the court, the family has undoubtedly become a household name for any basketball fan. Now that the 2017 season has come to a close, it’s only right to reflect on the historic season all three boys had, as well as discuss their bright futures.

While it’s true that he is the shortest, skinniest, and youngest, LaMelo is not to be overlooked. It is quite possible that the 6-foot-3, rising high school junior has the most potential out of the trio. He’s always played on the same teams with his older brothers versus much older opponents. Now that he’s able to play against opponents of a similar age, LaMelo has been absolutely dominant. While averaging 27 points per game as a sophomore on one of the best high school teams in the country is amazing by any standard, it isn’t the highlight of LaMelo’s season. Scoring 92 points — 41 in the fourth quarter alone — and going viral online while doing so is more like it.

There’s no question that LaMelo will continue to dominate at the high school level, however, there is a fair amount of speculating to be done when it comes to the school where he is going to finish his high school career. Just recently, Lavar Ball was interviewed claiming that LaMelo is surely going to be taken out of Chino Hills High School following an altercation with the basketball coach.

“The last game we lost against Mater Dei, he [the coach] came right out and cussed my sons out. Personally, blaming [the loss] on LaMelo talking about you lost the game for us shooting too much and not passing,” Lavar said.

While unfortunate, LaMelo’s future is hardly impacted by the situation as he is still committed to play for the UCLA Bruins.

Next in line is high school senior LiAngelo, the 6-foot-6, 240 pound three point and defensive specialist. Averaging just under 34 points per game on the season, LiAngelo also had some special games this year. The first came against Orange Lutheran in November when he scored 52 points followed by a 72-point performance the next game versus Rancho Christian. When asked about LiAngelo’s game, his older brother spoke in high praise.

“Definitely just a pure scorer. He can post up, shoot the three, or score off the dribble. Anytime you need a bucket, just give him the ball and get out of the way,” Lonzo said.

Former Chino Hills head coach Steve Baik had a similar assessment of his game.

  “He’s just a natural shooting guard right now. You know, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, he’s in every way a pure shooting guard… He’s capable of hitting 10 three’s in a row, now we have him in the post. We want to continue to refine his skills and make him become more of a slasher and play maker,” Baik said.  

While LiAngelo’s high school career is officially over, his basketball future is bright as he is committed to play at UCLA next season.

Lastly, we have UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball, the oldest brother of the trio. Lonzo is in every sense a pure playmaker. Standing at 6foot-6, he is among the tallest point guards in the NBA. Coupled with an incredible basketball IQ (the ability to make the right plays in big moments) that has caused many to compare him to NBA legend Jason Kidd, Lonzo is slated to be a top three lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Lonzo is his drive to be the best NBA player of all time. Lonzo has been recorded on camera multiple times expressing this desire, most recently stating,

“At the end of the day, I want to be one of the best players to ever play. I think if you do something you love, you should always shoot to be the best at it.”

Lonzo has lived up to this sentiment as he’s proven to be the best at each level he’s played. In high school, he led Chino Hills to a perfect 35-0 season punctuated by a California State title. In college, he helped revitalize the UCLA men’s basketball program (who were 15-17 during the 2015-2016 season), leading the team to a 31-5 overall record while averaging 14.6 points, 6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. While the NBA is a completely different beast, it should be interesting to see the impact Lonzo has on the league.

Even though none of the Ball brothers have played a single NBA game, the impact that they’ve had on basketball culture is profound. The most exciting games are yet to come, and we should all sit back and watch the trio do what they do best.

Athlete of the Week: Noah Linhart ’19

in Athlete of the Week by

Last Thursday against DeSales, Linhart tossed a gem. The Hendersonville, N.C. native propelled the Garnet to a 6-2 victory as he tossed a complete game, allowing only six hits and zero earned runs. The effort helped Linhart lower his ERA to an impressive 2.00, which ranks 6th in the Conference. Linhart will start the Garnet’s next game on Friday at Washington College.

MAX KASSAN: What is your major and what influenced you to pursue it?

NOAH LINHART: My major is biology which I became interested in when I took my first biology class during my freshman year of high school.

MK: What is your favorite Swarthmore athletics memory?

NL: My favorite memory so far is playing two ball on spring break with PO Nation [how the pitchers refer to their cohort].

MK: Last Thursday’s game was your first collegiate complete game. What was going through your mind in the ninth inning?

NL: The only thing on my mind going into the 9th inning was making sure I didn’t try and do too much. The defense behind me was doing a great job all game and I knew that they had my back.

MK: You are one of four very solid starters for the Swarthmore pitching staff this year, what are the dynamics on the pitching staff like?

NL: I feel like the dynamic on the staff focuses around being prepared but also playing relaxed and with confidence. We are very close and everyone knows that the staff has eachothers’ backs, which is a real comforting thought when the time comes to pitch in a big situation.

MK: What are your expectations for the conference season?

NL: I feel like we are going to win a lot of games this conference season. We are a young and talented team with great synergy among everybody. The upperclassmen have done a great job in preparing us for a tough schedule, which I think will help us as the season progresses.

 

Is UConn Women’s Basketball Too Good For The Game?

in Columns/Sports by

Perfection in sports, as in life, is always striven for and seldom attained. Those teams that do achieve the seemingly impossible, however, are hailed as legends for having left their mark on the game. But what happens when perfection becomes the norm? When perfection is not a weighty goal, but an expectation? That is the culture surrounding the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team.

Arguably the greatest dynasty in sports history, the Huskies have achieved unprecedented success over the past two decades. It began with a magical season in 1995, in which UConn won its first ever National Championship, finishing the season with a record of 35-0. Since then, the Huskies have reached 14 Final Fours and won 10 National Championships, including the last four in row. The Huskies also own the greatest winning records in American history, including both professional and collegiate sports. From 2001-2003, UConn accumulated a 70-game winning streak, which they surpassed with a 90 game winning streak from 2008-2010. This 90-game streak broke the previous winning record set by the UCLA Men’s basketball team of 88 games under storied coach John Wooden. Currently, the women’s team is on a 111 game winning streak which began with a win over Creighton on November 23, 2014. That’s right, it has been 866 days since the UConn Women’s basketball team suffered its last lost.

The current streak this team on is even more amazing when you consider just how dominant they have been during it. The largest margin of victory was 65 points, which came over South Florida, the 20th ranked team in the country at the time. The women have beat 29 ranked teams during the streak, including 81 wins while ranked number 1 in the country. Their mastery is undeniable, with 108 of the 111 wins having been by double digits.

Over the past two decades, the team has been led by head coach Geno Auriemma, who began coaching the team in 1985. Since then, Auriemma has compiled a record of 991-134, been named the Naismith College Coach of the Year seven times, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. Auriemma has also been the coach of the Women’s National Team, winning gold medals in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

UConn’s dominance is undoubtedly one of the greatest feats in sports history. The question is, have they made the game of women’s college basketball better or worse? This question was brought to the national stage by a tweet posted by Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy this past Sunday.

The tweet read, “UConn Women beat Miss St. 98-38 in NCAA tourney. Hate to punish them for being great, but they are killing women’s game. Watch? No thanks.”

The tweet was met with a wave of criticism from UConn supporters who said Shaughnessy’s comments demean the team for being great. ESPN Women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo, a UConn basketball alum, brushed off Shaughnessy’s comments stating that he was entitled to his own opinions, and that not watching the Huskies is his choice. Many surrounding the team have taken a similar stance, agreeing with Lobo that anyone who thinks the Huskies are bad for the game need not watch.

Shaughnessy followed his tweet with an article titled “UConn women are too dominant for their own good.” In it, he cited the lack of competition for the Huskies as the reason for his boredom.

“It’s because they have no competition. It’s the margins of these victories…Competition is why we watch sports. Who is going to win? Without that drama, sports would be no different from the theater, ballet, or symphony. The UConn women are so good they have stripped their sport of all drama and competition and made it similar to performance art,” he said.

Regardless of your opinion, the UConn women’s historic run and decades of unrivaled success is something to be admired. The Huskies are a heavy favorite to win their fifth title in a row this year, as they enter the Final Four as the number one overall ranked team. The Huskies will look for their 112th consecutive win when they take on Mississippi’s State this Friday. A likely win will put them in the championship game against the winner of the South Carolina, Stanford matchup.

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