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When the offseason doesn't mean time off

Two-sport athletes struggle to survive at Yale against increasingly difficult odds.

By Sheela V. Pai

Amanda Walton, SY '02. Megan Strenski, MC '02. Sue Barnes, DC '00. These names don't just represent the cream of the crop of Yale athletes; they also represent the last of a dying breed: the two-sport Eli. Every year a handful of Yale athletes conquer daunting physical and time constraints to successfully complete another full year of competition and training in two sports, often making a huge impact on both teams. But also every year, more and more Bulldog athletes are taking on the two-sport challenge and finding that despite their talent and dedication, they just are not up to the task.

Reeling them in

Recruiting a two-sport athlete carries its own risks. There is a high probability that the athlete will not be able to handle two seasons of intense, physically demanding competition every year and will either not develop and excel at either sport or, perhaps even worse, drop one, wasting a valuable recruitment spot. But because Yale has always proved willing to make this gamble, it has attracted outstanding athletes like Walton, the 1998-99 lacrosse and field hockey Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and Jac Gould, CC '00, the 1998 Ivy League Soccer Player of the Year and a former star sprinter. Most Division I schools lure top athletes with scholarships but demand a year-round, single-sport commitment to ensure that players develop to their highest potential. The Yale athletic program uses its flexibility as a key selling point to make up for the fact that it can't offer athletic scholarships due to Ivy League regulations.

Walton said Yale coaches' support of her desire to play both field hockey and lacrosse was a major factor in her decision to come here. "A main reason why I looked at the Ivy League is because schools down South make you choose one sport, because there is a different time limit to how much you can practice out of season," she said. "The Yale coaches worked together to try to get me in. They knew I had my heart set on playing two sports and that I felt confident I could do both."

Men's lacrosse coach Mike Wald-vogel admitted that it is common practice for coaches of different sports teams to coordinate their recruitment efforts. He pointed out that he and men's ice hockey coach Tim Taylor are currently working together to attract a top recruit. "[Taylor] and I are recruiting an athlete who is going to get scholarships for both sports, but all the schools down South won't let him play both sports," he explained. "Besides Yale and Harvard, there are few other schools where you can play two sports."

Trial run

Many Eli athletes don't make the decision to tackle another sport until they have already begun their Yale athletic careers. In the spring of her freshman year, following a successful season on the ice hockey team, Barnes felt comfortable about exploring the idea of joining the field hockey team too. But the ice hockey assistant coach didn't think it was a good idea since the seasons overlapped—the field hockey season ends in mid-November, while the ice hockey season begins in mid-October. "[The assistant coach] said, `It's going to be too hard to do both sports. You're not going to be able to handle it,'" Barnes recalled. But she would not be deterred. "I talked to both the field hockey and ice hockey coaches and said I'll do what it takes to make it work," Barnes said. "It was something I really wanted to do, and I was willing to do whatever it took to play a fall sport." She did; Barnes finished this year as a top scorer on both the field hockey and ice hockey teams, and served as captain of the former.

Both Taylor and Waldvogel said they are open to allowing their athletes to experiment in other sports and find their niche, even if it involves them joining a team with an overlapping season. Taylor said that when hockey forward Paul Lawson, BK '00, informed him in the spring of his sophomore year that he was going to go out for the football team, he tried to help him out. "I said, `Paul, is this going to interfere with your performance as a hockey player,' and he said no, so I talked to [football head coach] Jack Siedlecki and told him Paul wanted to be a wide receiver." Lawson went through spring training with the football team that year and got through part of the fall season his junior year, but when October rolled around and Lawson still wasn't getting much playing time, he was faced with a dilemma—should he stick with football, or rejoin the hockey team? Taylor said the decision was clear. "Maybe if he had been on the first or second [football] defensive line it would have been different, but he wasn't, so he decided to rejoin the team," Taylor said.

Waldvogel said that he had a similar experience with All-American Joe Pilch, SM '99. "Joe played football freshman year and he was okay, but then he played on the lacrosse team as a goalie and he won the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award and said, `Wow, I'm really going to stick with lacrosse,'" Waldvogel said. "Only if they see they can contribute to both teams will athletes play both sports."

One sport too many

The rare athlete who does manage to stick to and excel at both sports faces a number of setbacks. Because of field hockey season, Walton misses out on fall lacrosse scrimmages and some of the training period, and she feels this has an impact on the quality of her technique. "When I join [the lacrosse team in November] I do feel kind of behind and that I've got a lot of catching up to do," she said. "I'm not worried about being out of shape because I'm practicing and playing games, but I miss getting better skill-wise."

Hockey forward Mark Sproule, SY '00, who played on the lacrosse team for three years, felt that a major problem he faced joining lacrosse mid-season after the hockey season ended in March was that he just didn't get an opportunity to develop a strong bond with his teammates. "I only went on the spring lacrosse trip my freshman year [since the hockey season ended early]...so I only got to know half the team," he said. "I've known the guys on the hockey team for so long that my attachment is with them."

But what finally forces many two-sport athletes to give up on their dual pursuit? Despite three strong seasons on the track team, Gould decided he wanted to have a calm final spring term at Yale. "I just wanted to have a good senior spring and relax for once in my life," he said. "I wanted to concentrate more on school and look for a job." But baseball player Shea Treadway, PC '01, dropped football last year after he broke his leg sliding into home plate two years in a row.

Despite becoming one of the team's top players, Sproule felt he had no choice this year but to drop lacrosse after the hockey team made it into the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) playoffs for the third year in a row, extending the season into April and weeks into lacrosse season. "Sophomore year after the hockey season ended, I practiced three times with the lacrosse team and I jumped into the season," he said. "By then, lacrosse season was half over, and that cuts down on the impact you can have on the team. I wasn't able to get into the flow and play at the top level, and that was detrimental." Waldvogel noted that it was hard for Sproule to make the transition between the two seasons so quickly. "Mark needed to slow down to play lacrosse, but he was quick, too quick, because you have to be when you're playing hockey."

But no matter how obvious the decision to drop a sport may be, it is still a tough decision to make. "It's hard to sit and watch the team play when I could be out there playing too, but I'm probably happier right now than I would be if I were still on the team," Sproule said.

Changing times

Sproule, Gould, and Treadway represent a larger trend in Yale athletics—the rapidly decreasing presence of two-sport athletes. Waldvogel said this is partly due to increasing recruitment restrictions. "The two-sport athlete is rare now because athletes are being forced to specialize because the NCAA is decreasing the number of players you can recruit. It's gone down 20 percent (in recent years)," he said. "When I joined Yale in 1980, there were many two- or even three-sport athletes." He also said a new generation of coaches is emerging that played only one sport in college and so, in turn, demand that their athletes specialize in one sport "or find another school."

Sproule noted that it was initially not very difficult for him to jump from hockey to lacrosse because both teams weren't strong. However, as hockey became an ECAC championship contender and lacrosse started improving, his chances of remaining a two-sport athlete became increasingly slim. "As teams get better and compete more on the national level, it becomes harder to play two sports," he said.

Though the two-sport experiment can last for four months for some athletes and four years for others, they all agree that it's one they don't regret having experienced. Barnes said the best piece of advice she received on the matter was from field hockey player Lindsay Hobbs, PC '99, who played lacrosse in high school and regretted not pursuing the sport at Yale. "Lindsay said you might as well try it and see if you like it, rather than not try it at all." Graphic by Tanja Geis.

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