October 11, 2001

Red Faces Stronger Schedules

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“Good teams force you to play at a higher speed,” men’s soccer head coach Brian Scales explains.

“You have to be able to play against good teams to do well,” he says.

The athletes and coaches of Cornell are taking that message to heart. The men’s soccer team matched up against No. 19 Penn State last night — and emerged victorious. This winter, the men’s hockey team plays a two game series with long time powerhouse Boston University in addition to its respectable ECAC schedule. And, also this winter, the men’s basketball teams takes on nationally respected opponents Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech. More than ever before, teams are playing tougher, more prominent opponents as the Red seeks greater national respect.

“To compete at the national level, you have to beat the right teams,” men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer says. A stronger schedule allows teams to climb up the polls, and helps make a case for NCAA tournament bids.

The RPI index, which helps determine the participants in the NCAA hockey championships, has a large strength of schedule component. Soccer has a similar case — there are forty-eight spots in the NCAA soccer tourney this year, and schedule will be important part of how the at large bids get distributed. However, there are other less obvious reasons to play good teams.

Men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue has his own ideas about schedules. “I want to attract kids who want to play that sort of schedule.” He is working to make the Red’s schedule tougher and more interesting than the standard Ivy League slate, to give the athletes “the best college basketball experience possible,” as he puts it. This year’s more prominent schedule serves both to bring in better recruits interested in an Ivy League education and a high level of play, and to spark a greater interest in the team among the Cornell student body. In one very significant way, Donahue’s opinion mirrors the other coaches — that the benefits of a tough schedule far outweigh the drawbacks.

Schafer notes that playing better opponents can expose both strengths and weaknesses of a team. He points out that most teams can not consistently play the highest caliber teams and expect to come out of every single match undefeated. However, the knowledge gained from the competition far outweighs any possible loss. And, most importantly, victories over the best teams bring national respect.

To schedule bigger and better teams, Donahue and Scales both have similar methods. Fifteen years of experience have given Donahue personal ties with coaches around the country. He has drawn on those relationships, specifically with the Notre Dame coaching staff, to draw tougher competition. Scales points to the his ties from olympic development camps. “Division I soccer coaches are a pretty tight-knit group.” he says.

“There are only 200 or so teams in the country.”

That allows for close communication between them, and helps to work out a good schedule.

The coaches say they prepare their teams for tougher squads the same way they do for their normal opponents. It gives the teams a chance to prove themselves, and the coaches point that out. Schafer says the players, “know they should beat these guys.” As he explains, Schafer does not need to say too much extra. Scales attitude is similar, “Fast soccer is fast soccer, whether it’s Ithaca College or Penn State.” He says the teams are all pretty close, and while some might have a better player or two, for the most part, the good teams are pretty much even. Donahue stresses the execution in the games along with his teams competitiveness. He points to the team’s effort, and notes that with the right combination of athletes and execution, the Red can compete at the highest levels, with teams from the Big East and the ACC. All of the coaches try to keep their players on an even keel, to keep them from believing that a certain opponent is invincible. Beyond that, they to point their players in the right direction and let them go play, to win some games.

Each of the coaches talks about how much the schedules can vary from year to year depending on which teams are doing well and which teams are not. High regard in national circles, and the strength of the Ivy League’s soccer teams (second only to the ACC) adds to the soccer schedule, and having respected teams like Penn State and Fairfield on the schedule helps too.

The hockey team is helped from year to year by away games at national powers like Michigan, Michigan State, and Boston University, along with a tough ECAC schedule and wide respect in coaching circles.

The basketball team, while not yet known as an nationally respected collegiate juggernaut, has the inspired leadership to turn their fortunes around. Donahue is working to bring in widely known teams so he can attract both spectators and recruits. This year’s schedule looks a lot harder and a lot more interesting than those from years past. He looks for that trend to continue. He hopes future schedules will include Georgia Tech, and possibly Villanova. He is looking for some tough competition, and with a couple of wins, some respect for the Red.

Archived article by Matt James