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Offbeat Sports Attract Team Players but Not Fans

Croquet, Squash, Rugby, Racquetball and Other Sports Aren't Usually in the Campus Spotlight

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Two or three times a year, the Harvard-Radcliffe croquet team throws together a practice session. After all, they do have a reputation to keep up; just a few years ago, they won the national collegiate championship.

Antonio F. Soler '98, a member of the Crimson croquet team, says Harvard gained an automatic nationals invitation in 1991, when two Harvard students who had never played croquet before in their lives won the national collegiate championship.

"We try to preserve that spirit now by doing very little practicing before-hand," says Soler, who helped the team place fourth in the nation last year. "We usually win because we have more athletic talent than other schools, who get course credit but who are playing croquet because they can't do anything else."

Those who think croquet is less than an academic exercise just don't appreciate the intricacies of the game, team members say.

"A lot of schools offer course credit because croquet teaches problem-solving abilities, because it's like pool in that you not only have to worry about how to get your ball into the hole, but also about where it will end up afterwards," Soler says.

But the croquet team isn't the only group of underappreciated athletes at the College. The squash, fencing, sailing, table tennis, equestrian and Radcliffe rugby teams mourn their lack of fans despite impressive national performances.

National Champs Seek Fans

The squash team may be the best known across the country, with repeated successes under its belts. The women's squash team is defending its fourth consecutive national title, and the men's team is working on its seventh this year, but they're accustomed to playing for crowds of 15.

"Dominance is a tradition for us," says Rachel L. Barenbaum '98. "But it's hard to get a following when no one knows about your sport."

"At home, maybe we'll get 15 spectators for a match, usually roommates, sometimes parents, and that's not many, not enough."

The fencing team expects to send four individuals to nationals this year, but their crowd is usually "one or two random people who wander in," says Mallory A. Stewart '97, the team captain.

The sailing team is ranked fifth nationally, but its spectators are usually two or three team members to cheer each person on, members said.

Among club sports, Radcliffe rugby and the table tennis, equestrian and croquet teams will be represented in national tournaments, often facing teams with far greater fan support and more substantial university backing.

No Respect at All

In many cases, team members say they make up the majority of their own cheering section. members say they make up the majority of their own cheering section.

"We've dragged a lot of folks along; friends, boyfriends, parents, but a lot of the time it's just us," equestrian team member Samantha L. Hetherington '98 says. "Even though there aren't that many of us, we can be pretty loud on our own."

Championship matches at table tennis tournaments sometimes draw over 150 people, but Crimson players in the early rounds often rely on table tennis club members for fan support.

"Sometimes roommates or good friends will come by and watch us play, but usually it's people from the club, who are just very enthusiastic about table tennis," team member Lifan Yang '99 says. "Mentally it would help us to have bigger crowds."

Radcliffe rugby wrote an article about its recent success and submitted it to The Crimson several weeks ago, and several other athletes complained about a lack of attention from campus media.

"I find it odd that a newspaper wouldn't want to know about what we're doing," men's squash player Andrew C. Walter '97 says. "But that's not why I play. I play to win, not to have other people know I win."

In addition to small crowds and a lack of media coverage, Jennifer L. Esty '97 says Radcliffe rugby had faced a reluctance from Radcliffe to take its only club sport seriously.

"Socially, sometimes women's rugby gets a bad rap, but every year that I've been here, Radcliffe has become more and more serious about rugby as a sport," Esty says. "I think it's because we've done so well that we've been taken more seriously."

Obstacles to Recognition

For most teams, the most frustrating roadblock is that a majority of students have no idea how their sports are played or scored.

Much of the Harvard community knows enough about football or basketball to enjoy a game, but the rules of, say, team sailing are not always obvious to a first-time spectator.

"At the Tufts team race, the Tufts coach sets up a microphone and does commentary for the crowd, explaining what's going on, because team racing is hard to understand," says J. Brett Davis '96, who placed second in the country in the fall in individual sailing competition.

The squash team has also suffered from the game's association with racquetball, not exactly the world's most popular spectator sport.

"To compare squash and racquetball, I would use the analogy of chess and checkers. Squash has a different ball, a different racket, different rules and a different court, but you're still in a big box, and that's like having the same checkered board," Barenbaum explains.

Men's fencing captain Lee R. Scheffler '98 admits that "most people don't know anything about the rules of fencing," but says his team also suffers because of the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) facilities.

"When we fence at Yale, they have this balcony where a bunch of people can watch what's going on, but at the MAC there's just not much room for anyone to watch," Scheffler says.

C. Langdon Fielding '98, who finished among the top 12 riders at last year's equestrian nationals and has qualified again this year, says day-long horse shows are not well-suited to attract spectators.

"Horse shows are a little traditional, and you can't yell while people are going over jumps, just because of the way horses are. You're only supposed to cheer at the end of the ride," Fielding says. "We get some people, but it's kind of hard to ask someone to see six hours of horse show when I jump for all of a minute."

The (Low) Roar of the Crowd

Radcliffe rugby attracted its largest crowd in memory for last fall's championship match of the Northern Rugby tournament, a 3-0 win over Yale that clinched a place in this summer's four-team national tournament.

"Usually we have about 30 people, a lot of the fan support is our team, but at the Northern Rugby finals, it was amazing, it was this thick band of people," Maggie S. Hatcher '98 says. "I was running down the field going "I know that person, I know that person,' and then I realized I had better not look over."

"[The big crowd] really pumped us up, and that's a big part of rugby. Just hearing the crowd when it's like that is amazing," Esty says. "The home field advantage was a big help against Yale."

Davis said the biggest crowd he had ever seen at a sailing race was this fall at MIT, when spectators on the roof of the MIT boathouse were positioned in front of a crucial turning buoy.

"It was a windy day, and they had the buoy for a tight turn, and the fans would cheer if a boat tipped over or something," he says. "You can't think about it too much, but it's pretty exciting if you're coming down the course towards that turn and you can hear the spectators cheering in the back of your mind."

Harvard vs. Goliath

The success of many club teams seems even more amazing in light of the well-supported and sometimes varsity-level programs they face from other schools. Harvard prides itself on offering a wide variety of sports, but Crimson teams often face squads whose schools have chosen to dominate lesser-known sports.

"Equestrian is a varsity sport at Dartmouth and Brown, and there are schools down South where people go just to ride horses," Fielding says. "Frequently, I tell people here that I'm on the equestrian team, and they say, 'Oh, I didn't know Harvard had a horse team.'"

The table tennis team placed in the top eight nationally last year, and team member Charles H. Sanders '97 says his team frequently faces schools from Maryland and the Carolinas which recruit players from across the country for varsity-level programs.

"They actually have entire dorms reserved just for table tennis players. The University of Maryland didn't attend nationals last year, because it coincided with the Olympic trials and they were all there," Sanders says. "The National Table Tennis Center is in Maryland, so recruiting for them is a breeze. It's like Notre Dame, where everybody wants to go there."

Even squash players, with a program that is among the largest of its kind in the country, envies opponents with more numerous and vocal fans.

"At Princeton, when we play there, it's like a zoo. There are kegs in the balcony, a bunch of alumni come back, it's like a football game. We really wish we could get the kind of turnout that they do," says women's captain Ivy C. Pochoda '98.

"Last year, our home match against Princeton in no way resembled what it was like there. There were more fans than usual, but there was no sort of hullabaloo like at Princeton," adds Pochoda, who is a Crimson editor. "We haven't been able to recreate that same kind of energy here."

A Well-Kept Secret

Athletes from these under-recognized teams are quick to describe just what kind of action and entertainment the Harvard community is missing in their games.

For instance, those expecting a table-tennis match to be like a ping-pong game in the family basement will be surprised by Sanders' description of a typical match.

"You're usually about 15 feet from the other player, a little over 10 if you're both playing close. The points tend to be quite short, the ball slows down quickly, but it could start out around 120 miles per hour. By the time it gets to you, it'll be going around 60 to 75 mph and I've heard rpms from 4,000 to 10,000," Sanders says.

"It's incredible. If you just hold the paddle out, the ball will shoot off because of the spin," he adds.

According to Esty, a rugby match is "really 80 minutes of non-stop action," broken only by a few one-minute timeouts for injuries.

When a rugby player is tackled, she simply lays the ball down and the action continues. The two teams collide over the ball, and try to pitch it back to their teammates, while the tackled player tries to crawl out of the middle.

"It's a good sport to watch because it's tough and fast, and it's fun to watch people go out and go crazy. I think it's exciting to watch because you can tell it's exciting to play," she says. "It's good for people to go out and see women [who are] not afraid of being strong or getting muddy."

According to Walter, although the squash team currently includes the junior champions of India, Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom, and many top U.S. juniors, fans who avoid matches because they expect an unexciting Crimson rout are missing a lot.

"The myth that Harvard squash is unbeatable is far from true. There have been a number of really close matches, which we've just won. My freshman year, the national championship came down to the last match, and our number four player won it in overtime, 18-17," Walter says. "It fits my definition of entertainment."

Laura B. Stearns '98, who qualified for this year's singlehanded sailing nationals but had to drop out because of a knee injury, says this spring's team sailing matches against schools like MIT and Boston University (B.U.) will draw larger crowds because of their confrontational nature.

"It's more interesting because you'll see a Harvard boat go over and slam a B.U. boat so another Harvard boat can get ahead, or someone pull their boat into position so the breeze hits their boat and not a boat for the other team," Stearns says.

Soler promises a different, but equally entertaining, kind of action at croquet matches.

"The crowd is mostly our friends and people our friends know and people that know about croquet, and they come out basically to laugh at us, because they know we don't have a clue and all of those other teams have put so much into it and gotten course credit for it," he says.CrimsonHanna R. Shell

"We've dragged a lot of folks along; friends, boyfriends, parents, but a lot of the time it's just us," equestrian team member Samantha L. Hetherington '98 says. "Even though there aren't that many of us, we can be pretty loud on our own."

Championship matches at table tennis tournaments sometimes draw over 150 people, but Crimson players in the early rounds often rely on table tennis club members for fan support.

"Sometimes roommates or good friends will come by and watch us play, but usually it's people from the club, who are just very enthusiastic about table tennis," team member Lifan Yang '99 says. "Mentally it would help us to have bigger crowds."

Radcliffe rugby wrote an article about its recent success and submitted it to The Crimson several weeks ago, and several other athletes complained about a lack of attention from campus media.

"I find it odd that a newspaper wouldn't want to know about what we're doing," men's squash player Andrew C. Walter '97 says. "But that's not why I play. I play to win, not to have other people know I win."

In addition to small crowds and a lack of media coverage, Jennifer L. Esty '97 says Radcliffe rugby had faced a reluctance from Radcliffe to take its only club sport seriously.

"Socially, sometimes women's rugby gets a bad rap, but every year that I've been here, Radcliffe has become more and more serious about rugby as a sport," Esty says. "I think it's because we've done so well that we've been taken more seriously."

Obstacles to Recognition

For most teams, the most frustrating roadblock is that a majority of students have no idea how their sports are played or scored.

Much of the Harvard community knows enough about football or basketball to enjoy a game, but the rules of, say, team sailing are not always obvious to a first-time spectator.

"At the Tufts team race, the Tufts coach sets up a microphone and does commentary for the crowd, explaining what's going on, because team racing is hard to understand," says J. Brett Davis '96, who placed second in the country in the fall in individual sailing competition.

The squash team has also suffered from the game's association with racquetball, not exactly the world's most popular spectator sport.

"To compare squash and racquetball, I would use the analogy of chess and checkers. Squash has a different ball, a different racket, different rules and a different court, but you're still in a big box, and that's like having the same checkered board," Barenbaum explains.

Men's fencing captain Lee R. Scheffler '98 admits that "most people don't know anything about the rules of fencing," but says his team also suffers because of the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) facilities.

"When we fence at Yale, they have this balcony where a bunch of people can watch what's going on, but at the MAC there's just not much room for anyone to watch," Scheffler says.

C. Langdon Fielding '98, who finished among the top 12 riders at last year's equestrian nationals and has qualified again this year, says day-long horse shows are not well-suited to attract spectators.

"Horse shows are a little traditional, and you can't yell while people are going over jumps, just because of the way horses are. You're only supposed to cheer at the end of the ride," Fielding says. "We get some people, but it's kind of hard to ask someone to see six hours of horse show when I jump for all of a minute."

The (Low) Roar of the Crowd

Radcliffe rugby attracted its largest crowd in memory for last fall's championship match of the Northern Rugby tournament, a 3-0 win over Yale that clinched a place in this summer's four-team national tournament.

"Usually we have about 30 people, a lot of the fan support is our team, but at the Northern Rugby finals, it was amazing, it was this thick band of people," Maggie S. Hatcher '98 says. "I was running down the field going "I know that person, I know that person,' and then I realized I had better not look over."

"[The big crowd] really pumped us up, and that's a big part of rugby. Just hearing the crowd when it's like that is amazing," Esty says. "The home field advantage was a big help against Yale."

Davis said the biggest crowd he had ever seen at a sailing race was this fall at MIT, when spectators on the roof of the MIT boathouse were positioned in front of a crucial turning buoy.

"It was a windy day, and they had the buoy for a tight turn, and the fans would cheer if a boat tipped over or something," he says. "You can't think about it too much, but it's pretty exciting if you're coming down the course towards that turn and you can hear the spectators cheering in the back of your mind."

Harvard vs. Goliath

The success of many club teams seems even more amazing in light of the well-supported and sometimes varsity-level programs they face from other schools. Harvard prides itself on offering a wide variety of sports, but Crimson teams often face squads whose schools have chosen to dominate lesser-known sports.

"Equestrian is a varsity sport at Dartmouth and Brown, and there are schools down South where people go just to ride horses," Fielding says. "Frequently, I tell people here that I'm on the equestrian team, and they say, 'Oh, I didn't know Harvard had a horse team.'"

The table tennis team placed in the top eight nationally last year, and team member Charles H. Sanders '97 says his team frequently faces schools from Maryland and the Carolinas which recruit players from across the country for varsity-level programs.

"They actually have entire dorms reserved just for table tennis players. The University of Maryland didn't attend nationals last year, because it coincided with the Olympic trials and they were all there," Sanders says. "The National Table Tennis Center is in Maryland, so recruiting for them is a breeze. It's like Notre Dame, where everybody wants to go there."

Even squash players, with a program that is among the largest of its kind in the country, envies opponents with more numerous and vocal fans.

"At Princeton, when we play there, it's like a zoo. There are kegs in the balcony, a bunch of alumni come back, it's like a football game. We really wish we could get the kind of turnout that they do," says women's captain Ivy C. Pochoda '98.

"Last year, our home match against Princeton in no way resembled what it was like there. There were more fans than usual, but there was no sort of hullabaloo like at Princeton," adds Pochoda, who is a Crimson editor. "We haven't been able to recreate that same kind of energy here."

A Well-Kept Secret

Athletes from these under-recognized teams are quick to describe just what kind of action and entertainment the Harvard community is missing in their games.

For instance, those expecting a table-tennis match to be like a ping-pong game in the family basement will be surprised by Sanders' description of a typical match.

"You're usually about 15 feet from the other player, a little over 10 if you're both playing close. The points tend to be quite short, the ball slows down quickly, but it could start out around 120 miles per hour. By the time it gets to you, it'll be going around 60 to 75 mph and I've heard rpms from 4,000 to 10,000," Sanders says.

"It's incredible. If you just hold the paddle out, the ball will shoot off because of the spin," he adds.

According to Esty, a rugby match is "really 80 minutes of non-stop action," broken only by a few one-minute timeouts for injuries.

When a rugby player is tackled, she simply lays the ball down and the action continues. The two teams collide over the ball, and try to pitch it back to their teammates, while the tackled player tries to crawl out of the middle.

"It's a good sport to watch because it's tough and fast, and it's fun to watch people go out and go crazy. I think it's exciting to watch because you can tell it's exciting to play," she says. "It's good for people to go out and see women [who are] not afraid of being strong or getting muddy."

According to Walter, although the squash team currently includes the junior champions of India, Israel, Canada and the United Kingdom, and many top U.S. juniors, fans who avoid matches because they expect an unexciting Crimson rout are missing a lot.

"The myth that Harvard squash is unbeatable is far from true. There have been a number of really close matches, which we've just won. My freshman year, the national championship came down to the last match, and our number four player won it in overtime, 18-17," Walter says. "It fits my definition of entertainment."

Laura B. Stearns '98, who qualified for this year's singlehanded sailing nationals but had to drop out because of a knee injury, says this spring's team sailing matches against schools like MIT and Boston University (B.U.) will draw larger crowds because of their confrontational nature.

"It's more interesting because you'll see a Harvard boat go over and slam a B.U. boat so another Harvard boat can get ahead, or someone pull their boat into position so the breeze hits their boat and not a boat for the other team," Stearns says.

Soler promises a different, but equally entertaining, kind of action at croquet matches.

"The crowd is mostly our friends and people our friends know and people that know about croquet, and they come out basically to laugh at us, because they know we don't have a clue and all of those other teams have put so much into it and gotten course credit for it," he says.CrimsonHanna R. Shell

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