Let me be the last person to formally congratulate Columbia baseball on taking home the Ivy title last spring.
The team combined impressive pitching, clutch hitting, and a decent amount of good fortune into its NCAA tournament appearance, where it continued to make everyone proud. Nobody deserves the prosperity more than head coach Brett Boretti and company.
Contrary to what some might have written last spring, the idea of such success in baseball was not even remotely surprising. After two consecutive seasons of catching some tough breaks, the 2013 team lived up to its full potential despite losing stars Dario Pizzano and Pat Lowery. I have been around the team for a couple of years and have met players who were either recruited by or tried out for Columbia baseball, and they all speak highly of Coach Boretti and his program. As part of the program, he is able to complement his returning players with a consistently solid recruiting class from year to year.
Unfortunately, while it is important to praise the team for its 2013 season, it is imperative to acknowledge the team that may have set Columbia athletics back a few years. Basketball is the best way to market and draw attention to Ivy League athletics—just look at your junk folder from late November to see how hard the athletics department tried to milk the great win over Villanova—and so the men’s basketball team failures overshadow the rest of last year’s athletics campaign.
The only way in which the basketball team has been consistent over the last couple of years is in its inability to pull out close games. Not only did the team fail to contend for the league title—as many people, including me, thought it would—but it fell out of the 14-game tournament so quickly that it didn’t even get to play a meaningful game at Levien in the spring semester. Half (!) of the conference games that Columbia basketball has played the last two seasons have ended in losses by six points or fewer, with another loss by seven in overtime. Fifteen out of 28 basketball games is a large enough sample size to make this a pattern and not a coincidence.
The root of the problem is tough to diagnose. Clearly, the seniors did not play as well as anticipated. Coaching is usually a factor. A weak schedule could also be at play—the Lions may not have been as battle-tested as their Ivy foes. They do have a slightly tougher slate this season, but when you look around the league, it still doesn’t quite stack up.
On the other hand, Columbia baseball—albeit with an easier set of circumstances—plays some of the best the nation has to offer every March. The team faced off against the defending NCAA champions last year.
But the bottom line is that the men’s basketball team failed to take advantage of last year’s weak conference. Now, Harvard is poised to dominate the league, Columbia lost its two best players to graduation, and five of the other Ivies appear ready to take a step forward as well—this season has “transition year” written all over it. That’s especially true when you consider how the lack of senior presence on this year’s squad (one player, compared to four last year) will add to the uncertainty of what the starting lineups will look like.
The prospects of Columbia football are similar. The team is young and can only jump so far from last year’s 3-7 season. Even though running back Marcorus Garrett’s senior season and junior quarterback Brett Nottingham’s possible integration will be interesting to watch, any team failures could prompt more scrutiny than usual considering the team’s legal and social issues that transpired last May.
So 2013-2014 appears to be a transition year for the two major sports. Hopefully the Lions’ faithful fans will be comforted by some positive steps, especially after last winter’s failures. If that is not the case, fans must let Columbia athletics know that the shortcomings in basketball and football are simply unacceptable. Otherwise, the current model of primarily relying on minor sports and achievements for positive publicity is not going to change.
And if the model doesn’t change, the only transition that will occur this year will be the same one that happens every year—blindly optimistic sports columns in September that become those of despair in the spring… at least until the defending champs can take the field at Satow Stadium again.
Ryan Young is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-statistics. He is a sports broadcaster for WKCR. Roar Ryan Roar runs biweekly.