September 29, 2005

Remembering a Cornell Hero

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Imagine being at these games.

Cornell 23, Ohio State 14. A come-from-behind victory for the Cornell football team over the defending Big Ten champions.

Cornell 21, Michigan State 7 – the gridders win another big one in front of 35,300 fans on Schoellkopf Field.

Cornell 70, Princeton 69. A three-pointer from a Cornell guard in the last 10 seconds, and 9,000 fans rush the basketball court in Barton Hall when the buzzer sounds.

Sounds like heaven for the Cornell sports fanatic, but unfortunately, we’re living in the wrong century. The Ohio State win occurred in 1939, and we bested the Spartans in 1951. That particular win over Princeton came in 1965, when future NBA star and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley was suiting up for the Tigers.

Cornell athletics, for the most part, exist on a smaller stage in modern times. Every last one of the 3,836 seats in Lynah Rink is spoken for when Harvard rolls into town, but Schoellkopf is usually less than half full for a home football game. But while epic audiences and wins noteworthy enough to be picked up by ESPN are non-existent, Cornellians still have their fair share of heroes on the East Hill.

In terms of pure athletic ability, in my time here I’ve seen Ka’ron Barnes ’04, the only nearly-NBA-caliber player to take the floor in Newman Arena that I know of. Last spring, Lauren May ’05 gave a whole new meaning to softball for me. She was Barry Bonds – or better – for the Red. May set new records across the board every year, and even when opponents tried to pitch around her, she just kept blasting home runs. I still can’t get hockey tickets, but I hear junior goalie David McKee is halfway through a legendary college career. And wrestler Travis Lee ’05 – he’s a two-time national champion.

But in between the heroic victories of the Cornell glory days and the modern superstars we take tests next to, there are a few that have fallen off the radar and between the pages of history. One of those is Andrea Dutcher, former head coach of the Cornell volleyball team.

Dutcher would never be the one to tell you, but she is the face of women’s athletics for the Red. Ask around the Athletic Director’s office, Athletic Communications, or anyone who has had a relationship with Cornell sports that stretches back to the 1970s, and they will send you to Dutcher as the primary source for the story of the evolution of women’s athletics on the East Hill.

And what a story it is. Dutcher chose volleyball over gymnastics, as a result of her preference for the sport’s more relaxed clothing. This slight difference had a drastic impact on the volleyball team’s course over the next 14 years, as Dutcher laid the foundation of one of Cornell’s most successful teams, the owners of a .630 all-time winning percentage. The Dutcher years saw the Red claim four consecutive New York State titles – this was before the Ancient Eight handed out league titles – a school-record 47 wins in 1981, and a 20-game winning streak that still tops the record books.

But numbers can’t even begin to tell the whole story behind Dutcher’s impact on Cornell volleyball. From the start, her attitude changed everything. Dutcher lost half of her original team when she announced the Red would move from two practices a week to five, but that didn’t deter her. She said the girls that quit thought it was too much of a commitment – they weren’t prepared to give it their all, as Dutcher was. After coaching her first game, in which the team wore skirts borrowed from the basketball team and a player found herself in a revealing position after diving to the floor to make a play, Dutcher took her team to Woolworth’s and directed the purchase of the team’s first uniforms.

The small things came first on Dutcher’s agenda, but the program soon began to grow under her direction. She marshaled the resources to put together a traveling schedule, although it meant packing toasters and coffee pots into faulty vans – vehicles prone to losing their brakes or catching on fire. She coached championship squads, all while taping ankles, writing her own press releases for The Sun, and for a few years, coaching other sports as well. In a time when women’s teams were struggling to find their place, Dutcher rose above the growing pains and found a way to put together hand-me-downs and leftovers to make a winning product.

There is more than one way to look at history. While victories over the likes of the Buckeyes, the Spartans, and Bill Bradley are the stuff of legend, the scoreboard and stats sheet will only tell you so much. The true character of an athletic program and the institution it represents can’t be broken down into points or assists. It’s the intangibles that matter – a coach’s belief that her team is capable of excellence, and the ability to inspire her student-athletes that her vision is a goal within their reach. As much fun as it is to relive those “big ones” and recall the glory days of the likes of goalie Ken Dryden ’69 or tailback Ed Marinaro ’71, the legacy of Cornell sports owes just as much to people that never saw their name in a headline, such as athletic trainer Doc Kavanaugh, crew coach Charles Courtney, and Andrea Dutcher – a coach that took a group of undergrads who hit a ball around twice a week, and built them into the foundation of one of Cornell’s most successful teams.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer
Sun Assistant Sports Editor