April 3, 2008

Player Gives Account of Red's First Dance

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“Don’t worry about the score. Just have fun out there.”
There are two meanings to this phrase, just have fun. The first is said to calm any leftover nerves of a talented, prepared team in the huddle before the tipoff of their championship game. The second calls to mind a small-town little league soccer team comprised of colorful misfits before they take on the ’roid-packed state champs comprised of post-juvie ruffians with chest hair.
In the one week between our victory over the Dartmouth Big Green, which had secured our berth in the NCAA tournament, and our first round televised game against the top-seeded University of Connecticut Big Freaking Monsters, the meaning of that phrase had shifted from the former to the latter for us. In the three days since we had arrived in Bridgeport, Conn., I had heard it said condescendingly by everyone from the Kansas fans with whom we shared a hotel elevator to the Easter service parishioners with whom we shared the Sign of Peace. I half expected orange slices and hugs at half time.
This time, the speaker was the woman who was in charge of guiding us from our hotel to the packed Harbor Arena that (ahem) harbored our opponents and their die-hard fans. I had no idea what came over me. I had to respond.
[img_assist|nid=29463|title=All for one and one for all|desc=Junior forward Shannan Scarselletta (far right) had a hand in Cornell’s victory over Dartmouth, the first step to the NCAA tournament.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“I’m not here to just have fun. I’m here to win a game.” Oh, my god. I’m such a bad ass right now.
“Oh really,” she laughed.
“I’ll tell you what. You win this game, and I’ll buy you a beer.”
Anyone who happened to watch ESPN2 at 7 p.m. on March 23 knows that this lady did not, in fact, buy my underage self an illegal beverage of any kind. In front of a national audience, the Cornell women’s basketball team fought and clawed our way to an 89-47 loss to the chest-hair-sprouting UConn ruffians*.
(*This is not, in fact, true. As exemplified by their act of effortlessly lifting Cornell senior Gretchen Gregg to her feet after bowling her over in a bone-crushing charge, these ladies were quite polite. They are also drug-tested and relatively feminine, in an Amazon-woman hunter/gatherer kind of way.)
But the point is … we fought, and we clawed. Especially during the first four minutes of that game, we never lost sight of who we are and who we represent. With our wonderful corner of red-clad, sign-holding fans, parents and friends cheering across from our bench, in addition to the powerful and talented Cornell band at our side, we always remembered that we were Cornell University; we were the Ivy League Champions; we represented the Ivy League.
Even Geno Auriemma, UConn’s head coach, kept reminding us of our status as Ivy Leaguers. After the pre-game press conference (oh my god! There was a pre-game press conference!), there were rumors that he said, if he were our coach, he would tell our forwards to take heart in the fact that his forwards couldn’t get into Cornell.
During handshakes after the game, he mumbled something like, “Study hard. Good luck on your tests.”
Um … Geno? We’re on spring break, but way to be a jock-snob. Sorry if we’ve moved on from picture books, but that doesn’t make us any less of athletes.
But, then again, he’s kind of right. We’re Ivy League athletes — a precarious mix of jock and nerd. We add “practice hard” to the work hard/study hard lifestyle “balance” that every Cornell student strives to maintain. We’ve seen Cornell from every angle; we’ve watched the sun go down from the windows of Uris Library and watched it rise from the track on Schoelkopf Field, all in a six-hour timeframe. We’re not simply athletes; we’re entrepreneuers, musicians, writers and researchers. For all of our late night papers and early morning practices, Cornellians are not lesser athletes; we’re better people.
After beating Dartmouth, we were invited to dine at the Cornell Club in New York City to watch the men’s selection show. Everything from the fireplace mantle to the illustrations painted directly on the wall boasted images of the Cornell seal or the rushing waters of the Collegetown gorges. As I stared at a painting of the North Campus bridge that I (CUPD: never) gorge-jumped off of as a freshman, I felt what so many students and alumni have felt before me: a swelling pride in my heart for my school, for being a part of something so old and, as a member of the first-ever Cornell women’s basketball team to win an Ivy League title, something so new.
[img_assist|nid=29466|title=Nothing’s gonna stop us|desc=Junior Shannan Scarselletta (53) attributed the Red’s success to the program’s history.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
After dinner, I got back on the bus to Ithaca and wrote a 10-page philosophy paper. C’est la vie.
By the time we returned from Bridgeport, over a week had passed since we rolled over Dartmouth to secure our unprecedented NCAA berth. We had gone dancing, and we enjoyed all the spoils that came with it. We had been greeted at our hotel in Bridgeport by an NCAA tournament banner, free cookies and a crowd of cheering hotel employees wearing referee shirts. We had stuffed ourselves with NCAA-supplied food after practice and stuffed our bags with the free Powerade from our locker room. We had enjoyed our last team dinner after a 6-month-long season, with nothing left to talk about aside from the social implications of the cross-dressing in Rocky Horror Picture Show. And we had exited the hotel on route to our game through a crowd of friends, family and fans as Coach [Dayna] Smith’s brother high-fived us from inside the mascot-suit along to the band’s booming rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway.” We had played on national television, in front of ESPN and Sports Illustrated cameras, and we had represented Cornell and the Ivy League.
On the way back from Dartmouth, Coach Smith put on Miracle, Disney’s movie about the first U.S. Olympic Hockey team who, against all odds, beat a much more experienced Russian team in 1980. During an angry outburst somewhat resembling the all-too-familiar half-time pep-talks of my freshman year eight-win season, the head coach in the movie shouted, “When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back.”
We might be the first team that made it to the NCAA tournament, but we are not the first team to sweat, bleed and curse our way through 6 a.m. practices at Newman Arena. We might be the result, but we are only part of the cause. Those four days spent at our first NCAA tournament were not only shared by our team but also every woman who once pulled on the “Cornell” scrawled across their chest, laying the foundation on which we built our first title.
Besides, let’s be honest. We don’t even have names on the back of our jerseys.