DURING THE FALL semester of 2009 I commuted across the vast spectrum of intercollegiate athletics. Vocationally, as a journalist, I was writing a white paper entitled “College Sports 101: A Primer on Money, Athletics, and Higher Education in the 21st Century.” Its target audience was university presidents, political leaders, and the media, and its focus was the out-of-control finances of quasi-professional Division I sports. This project was funded by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has long sought to reform commercialized campus sports—surely a Sisyphean task. Meanwhile, parentally, I followed with stomach-churning anxiety and intermittent exhilaration the Division III Macalester men’s soccer team, of which my son Nate Juergens ’11 is a member. I suffered from college sports whiplash.
Pondering the excesses of the Big Ten or Southeastern conferences required the meditation—the salve, really—of cheering for the blue-and-orange-clad Scots as they battled on a smaller stage their Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foes.
We all know that of the possible permutations of words in the English language, these six rarely coalesce: “Macalester qualified for the NCAA tournament.” But last year both the Mac men’s and women’s soccer teams made it to the national post-season promised land. Who needs Division I?
The men’s season started with great expectations, thanks to a core of experienced juniors and seniors, an energetic sophomore class, and some potential among the first-years. But for some reason, the men’s team just couldn’t click. Underachievement clouded September. After the Scots lost a 1-0 lead in the closing minutes of their home game against St. Scholastica—a team from a lesser league than the MIAC—and then dropped the game in overtime, their normally calm coach Ian Barker was visibly morose. He sat in the parking lot between Macalester Stadium and the Leonard Center, chatting with team followers and wondering if Mac athletes had the internal fortitude to fight back from such a defeat.Soon afterwards at a team meeting, Barker challenged his players to intensify their commitment by a mere 5 percent per player. On a team of 20, he figured, that would raise the level of commitment by 100 percent. It was a neat formula, but at first it didn’t add up. Three-quarters of the way through the regular season, the team was a woeful 6-7-1, having lost to Gustavus in a game that went into overtime and in which the Scots dominated the extra period, only to fall short 2-1. But that defeat was a turning point. Everyone finally got mad, an emotion usually reserved for political science class or when Café Mac runs out of tofu.
If there’s anything that Division I athletes have in common with our gents—who led the MIAC in team GPA last season—it’s that magic happens in sports. A team finds itself and then rights itself. Every game someone else does something special, and a season—whether it’s in Lincoln, Nebraska, or on Snelling Avenue—turns around. After the Gustavus defeat, there was an unexpected rout of St. Olaf. Then came an overtime win against archrival St. Thomas. And before you know it, the Scots had strung together a seven-game winning streak. Because of the flexible nature of my work and my proximity to campus, I missed just one game all season, a road match in Moorhead, Minnesota, against Concordia College. But I was not alone in my obsession. The parents of defender Jesse Geary ’12 drove 150 miles from Duluth to every home game; his mother, on an academic sabbatical, made it to every road game, too. Thank goodness for audio books and NPR. At the final regular season game against Hamline, which came during fall break, Mac soccer parents from Oregon, Alaska, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and throughout Minnesota assembled to cheer on their sons. It was the fifth win in that delicious streak and clinched a league playoff spot. Afterward, those same parents gathered at our St. Paul home for a victory party. It felt so good that we even briefly forgot about the following month’s tuition payment.
Things got better. On a sparkling November Saturday, the Scots traveled to Northfield to face Carleton in the MIAC championship final. As many as 100 Mac students bused and carpooled down Interstate 35 to witness the joy of the Scots beating the Knights 1-0 and to sing a full-throated, “Mac-al-es-ter is wonderful!” on enemy turf.
In the end, before being eliminated in the second round of the NCAA playoffs, the Scots were among the top Division III men’s soccer teams in the nation. As someone who had spent the fall studying the failed economics of big-time college sports, I knew this: The 2009 Macalester soccer season was priceless.