October 20, 2006

Losing Teams Listen to Rice

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For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.

These words, the last two lines of the poem “Alumnus Football” written by Grantland Rice in 1941, make up the adage that is loyally repeated by coaches, parents and gym teachers in an effort to mold the young minds of America first and foremost into good sports rather than ruthless competitors driven to win above all else.

But when a team’s record sags heavily on the right side under the weight of loss after loss, does this reliable old standby still stand true?

It doesn’t appear so in the arena of college sports, not even where the ladies and gentlemen of the Ancient Eight are concerned. Losing is still the surest way to unemployment, as evidenced by Cornell’s firing of Ted Pendergast after the football team’s 1-9 (0-7 Ivy) season in 2003. Columbia followed the same route, showing Bob Shoop the door after his 2-8 season with the Lions last year.

The Lions have a history of misfortune on the football field, as they bear the distinction of earning Division I-AA’s second-longest losing streak, suffering defeat 44 games in a row from 1983-88. But that misery is a far cry from the depths to which Prairie View dropped over the years from 1989 to 1998, when the Panthers were losers of 88 games in a row. When a team is doing this badly, are fun and fair play still the most important thing?

While the fortunes of the football team here on the East Hill have changed, answers to this question can be found by turning to the Red’s futbol squads. Both the men’s and women’s soccer teams found a footing in the Ivy League standings with wins over Yale on Homecoming Weekend. For the men, it was their first win in their last six attempts, while the women snapped a nine-game skid and earned their first victory since their season opener.

“You just have to have faith that someday the bounces have to change and they’ll finally go your way and you just have to keep working hard,” said senior Alison McKeown.

For junior co-captain Kyle Lynch, finding success on the soccer field is another collegiate skill that has to be learned.

“You might have the talent or you might play pretty well but winning is not about how good your individual players are,” he said. “You actually have to learn how to win a game, how to close out a game.”

While these two teams briefly found the success they had been seeking throughout all of 2006, their fortunes took a dip once more in midweek contests. The men fell to Colgate, 2-0, on Tuesday night, while a youthful lineup for the women buckled under the pressure of Buffalo’s attack, dropping a 3-0 decision on Wednesday night. When success is so hard to come by, what is it that keeps McKeown, Lynch and their respective teammates showing up for practice day in and day out?

“Just competitiveness. I am a very, very competitive person … and I love the team,” Lynch said. “I am so happy with the guys on the team right now. If it had been a team of guys that I couldn’t get along with, who knows what would have happened. I like playing for them.”

It’s a similar story for McKeown.

“We play soccer because it’s fun,” she said. “Sometimes you lose games and sometimes it doesn’t always go your way, but when we were five years old, we weren’t worrying about whether we were winning a game or not. … I guess just understanding that my teammates and I are out there because we like to play soccer, because we’re all such good friends with each other and that we care about what we’re doing just keeps you going.”

If it sounds like losing doesn’t matter as long as they can participate in a lifelong passion with people they like, well, that’s not the whole story. Each loss hurts, but to wallow in the agony of defeat just makes it that much harder to bounce back the next time around.

“I don’t want it to sound like a sob story; that’s not really what it is at this point,” Lynch said. “We are extremely frustrated, but we’re not going to let it get us down. … We still have that mentality that this team is capable of doing something good.”

The women have not lost a game by more than two goals this year. For the men, the five-game winless stretch featured four double-overtime matches, and every contest was decided by a margin of one goal. But holding onto the frustration of the past doesn’t help build a winning future.

“When you’re losing that much, you have to try not to dwell on the past because you can only look to the future and hope that things will change so that we start scoring goals and winning games,” McKeown said.

It’s not easy to buck history and turn a program around. Rather than settling for the consolation of following Rice’s oft-quoted adage to play the right way, McKeown, Lynch and all of their fellow Cornell soccer players have adopted an attitude that reflects the less-famous lines that make up the first half of the final stanza of that poem:

Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line.