September 13, 2002

Counting Down the Days on the East Hill

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“Notice a common theme?”

Literature, history, government and many other types of professors had asked this question before, but on Wednesday it came from another source. It came from a person who usually gives out orders rather than posing questions for analysis. It was said by head football coach Tim Pendergast after he had run through the dozens of sophomores and freshman on his two-deep.

Usually those positions are commanded by the upperclassmen, juniors and seniors with a few years of college football under their belts.

“We only have 15 seniors,” he said, before flipping through his notebook, “and only 16 juniors!”

When I heard him speak of the youth of the Cornell football team last year, I didn’t understand the point he was making. He had just finished bragging about the skill of his players; isn’t the talent quotient more important than the age quotient? Are seniors, who have only two years on those sophomores, a more valuable commodity to a team?

Athletes aren’t fine wines; we all know that they don’t grow better with age. The Dallas Cowboys would agree as they continue phasing out Emmitt Smith. In fact, most teams get rid of the older dead wood because younger is better.

I know what you’re going to say next: Age is much more significant on the professional level than in college (note exception for Chris Weinke). However, basketball and football players leave their alma maters in droves to enter the draft, get a signing bonus, a house for Mom, and a fancy new SUV — unless Ed Martin provided a steady supply of Escalades.

But for the first time, the importance of seniority truly resonated with me at Pendergast’s office. Maybe it did because I am a senior. It’s something that perhaps you don’t realize until you are about to be thrown into the real world.

It’s not that I think that seniors are more talented, more knowledgeable, or even better leaders than underclassmen because that is not always true. What seniors have is the sense of urgency, the finality of their last season and no second chances left for winning that championship. It’s one of those intangibles that you can’t describe until the end of a career is palpable.

As a freshman, the ensuing four years seem to stretch well into middle age (or at least into your 20s). If success doesn’t come, there is always next year, and the year after and the year after that. The amount of time left dwindles until you wake up as a senior and realize that it’s now or nothing.

These senior athletes, most of whom will never get the chance to play their sport competitively after college have one season left to prove themselves athletically. Maybe a few lucky athletes on the track and field teams have two.

Even returning to the past year of NCAA D-I basketball champions, all those teams had glory bound seniors.

Three years ago it was the senior tandem of Mateen Cleaves and Maurice Peterson trampling over and shoving aside any team that got in their way. Shane Battier could have single-handedly given the Blue Devils the 2001 trophy. With Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton, Maryland had more seniors than the rest of its ACC counterparts.

A driven senior class can dictate a season like no one else. The men’s hockey team’s Class of 2002 spent the entire summer training in Ithaca for a chance at the Frozen Four; they came one win short.

The women’s lacrosse team had a void when it came to senior leadership until last season. But with eight women ready to graduate, the team made an appearance in the national semifinals.

Looking around the fall sports, the teams are getting older, more experienced, and more focused. The clock is ticking for the upperclassmen and the all-important ring is slipping through their fingers.

And in my final year on the Hill, I can feel that time is running out.

Archived article by Amanda Angel