The stadium erupted and emotions began to run wild. The Big Red had just clinched the Ivy League championship. For the first time in a decade, players, coaches, parents, and fans were celebrating the successful end to their teams’ season.
In 2012, this was the setting for two growing programs within the Big Red community: Men’s Soccer and Baseball.
When the Cornell community thinks of athletics, their minds immediately turn to some of the best teams in the college sports circuit. The Ice Hockey program for both men and women has been a powerhouse for many years. Going into the upcoming season Men’s Lacrosse is ranked 7th in the country, as is the Wrestling team midway through its season.
In the early days of last May, the baseball team clinched their first conference title since the Ivy League Conference incorporated baseball into their ranks in 1993. Just six months later, the Men’s Soccer team clinched their first outright Ivy League Championship since 1977.
Today, these teams represent two of the most popular and tightly-knit group of athletes that Cornell offers. The stories of these athletes and their struggles to reach the top, which have been overlooked by many, are the true sign of their character and an indicator of future success.
So just where did these two teams come from and what has lead to their phenomenal performance on the field over the past regular season?
The Big Red baseball team finished in last place in 2011, posting a disappointing 10-30 record. Down the road, the men’s soccer team had been making steady improvements since hitting rock bottom with a 1-15 record in 2008.
Through grueling training, hard work, determination, and unique team atmosphere, both of these teams were able to make the jump from the basement of the Ivy League to league Champions.
“Nothing but our best was expected in every moment that we were on the field whether it was practice or in games,” said junior second baseman Brenton Peters. For the baseball team, success came in the form of a senior class of veteran leaders supplemented by a phenomenally upbeat and talented freshman class.
Now graduated players such as Brian Billigen, Marshall Yanzick, Brendan Lee, and Frank Hager had been freshman when Head Coach Bill Walkenbach became head coach and the team finished tied for first place back in 2009. These players experienced success very early in their collegiate playing career, and were bred into Coach Walkenbach’s program from day one. They were able to convey a calm yet aggressive clubhouse attitude that carried the team throughout the season.
“I think the intensity that we approached the game with in practice everyday definitely benefitted us when we got into the situations where everything was on the line,” continued Peters.
On the field, Billigen led the team in nearly every offensive category and signed a contract to play professional baseball in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. Rick Marks, a transfer, mentored a young Big Red pitching staff while posting a stellar 3.48 ERA over the course of the season.
Filling in the holes in 2012, the freshman class was tenacious and made an immediate impact on the Big Red rotation and lineup. In order to go from worst to first, the team needed a strong group of incoming players and this class fit the bill.
Utility man Kevin Tatum who started 43 games for the Big Red last season had the team’s third best batting average and on base percentage, providing a key offensive spark in the order. Starting pitchers Brian McAfee and Brent Jones combined for a 10-3 record accounting for a third of the teams overall wins.
Closer Kellen Urbon broke the single season saves record with 9 and received recognition after recognition from Ivy League Rookie of the year to most recently being named a pre-season all-American for 2013.
“I just tried to go out there and not let my team down. They had worked hard to get us in a winning position, and it was my turn to help the team win,” said Urbon in regards to his approach as the Big Red’s closer.
The Big Red baseball team also saw incredible improvements from returning players in 2012. It is hard not to mention Chris Cruz in any article written about this team. The sophomore right fielder broke the single season record for home runs last season recording his 12th homer in the bottom of the 11th inning at Hoy Field to win the Ivy League Championship Series.
Sophomore Connor Kaufmann threw a no-hitter against Dartmouth early in the season, and then went on to secure three Ivy League Pitcher of the week recognitions en route to a 7-2 record. Peters flashed the leather last season and developed into one of the toughest outs in the league, posting a .442 on base percentage out of the leadoff spot in the lineup.
“Baseball to me is all about confidence, and nothing takes it out of the pitcher and the fielders behind him more than a guy who has long at bats and then gets on base after the whole ordeal is over,” Peters said.
While all of these accomplishments allowed the team to statistically defeat their opponents, it was what happened behind the scenes in the clubhouse that allowed them to make such a terrific run. Coach Walkenbach and his coaching staff stress a team oriented and mental skills approach to playing the game that is truly unique to the Big Red.
“We needed to expect to win in order to be successful, it really is all about the mental game and it was a key to our success last season,” remarked Walkenbach.
Isolating each at bat or each pitch and taking the game one step, one-inning at a time, the team found ways to scratch out victories in games they never should have won in ways no one could have predicted. The team atmosphere and camaraderie that exists amongst the players on this team is unprecedented. They are not just teammates as their friendships extend far beyond baseball. Many live together and you would be hard pressed to find one player on the team without at least one of his teammates at his side.
“To see the way the team gelled was just a dream come true; everything fell into place,” continued Walkenbach. “And the guys enjoyed the heck out of each other’s company. We had a blast on the road. People were stepping up in big situations and playing.”
Similarly to Coach Walkenbach, Head Soccer Coach Jaro Zawislon joined the Cornell Athletics community four seasons ago. Tasked with improving upon a 1-15 season, Zawislon came prepared with an established program designed to make his team a contender. His program stresses four core values: academics, passion and love of the game, lifestyle, and soccer playing ability. In other words, this team has been built from day one on the prospects of working hard inside and out of the classroom, loving the game enough to sacrifice everything for the goals of the team, and putting together a lifestyle that allows players to better themselves as individuals and as student-athletes.
“This season is an outcome of our players commitment to hard work, to self improvement; it is an outcome of their hunger for success, credit to the players in how we got there,” said Zawislon.
With this program in place, the team began to improve year by year. In 2011, they made huge strides towards accomplishing their ultimate goal of winning the conference by finishing 8-2-6. The players put in the time individually throughout the off season, hitting their benchmarks and were primed for a big 2012 season; a season in which they posted a 15-1 record to clinch the Ivy League title.
“This team surprised a lot of people this year and that's a credit to the team as a whole,” said senior goalkeeper Rick Pflasterer.
The team itself operates as a unit, and in a sport like soccer where the individual is much less important than the group, this synchrony amongst players makes their 2012 success even more understandable. Ask any player or coach on this team about themselves and they will quickly point you in another direction, recognizing the importance of the overall team performance.
“Throughout the last four seasons there is no star on this team; the star on the team is the team itself. That’s where the strength of this team has been from the beginning, that’s what makes this team successful, and what will continue to bring them success,” Zawislon said.
That being said, without the on field success of certain individuals, an Ivy League Championship would not have been possible. Daniel Haber’s production on the field was nearly unstoppable. The Ivy League Player of the Year, who recently signed on to play professionally in Israel, scored an unprecedented 18 goals in 2012 season. Haber’s contributions on offense accounted for nearly half of the goals made by the entire team throughout the course of the season.
In addition to Haber, the season could not have been achieved without Pflasterer’s shutdown play between the goal posts. Starting in all 17 games this season, he recorded 40 saves and held opponents to just 13 goals. Pflasterer also recorded five shut outs while preventing Ivy League foes Columbia, Yale, and Princeton from scoring a goal on his watch.
“As a goalkeeper, I try to do all of the little things right and then make that big save every once in a while when the team needs it,” said Pflasterer.
With both teams coming off of their biggest years in recent history, 2013 brings with it high expectations and promise for big success. Keep an eye on these two teams moving forward as they may soon be stealing the show as top athletics teams at Cornell.
Alex Gimenez is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.