Beyond wins and losses, student-athletes have mastered the art of the sacrifice

By John Wulf ’12John Wulf

Here at Hamilton, we’re not exactly known for our sports. In the most recent Learfield Sports Governor’s Cup — a competition that ranks the best collegiate athletic programs — Hamilton finished 222nd out of 318 Division III schools and last in the NESCAC. But rankings and records don’t do our student athletes justice. Through all of the wins (and yes, all of the losses), sports have remained a presence on this campus for  more than 125 years, and for a good reason.

Ted Finan ’12 and Jacob Sheetz-Willard ’12 recently graduated Phi Beta Kappa; Sheetz-Willard also won the James Soper Merrill Prize, perhaps the College’s most prestigious award. Both happened to play football. Says Sheetz-Willard, “Playing a sport at Hamilton puts you in a community. I think all student-athletes at Hamilton are united by a shared commitment to our teams and to the College’s rigorous academic challenges.”

Every Hamilton student knows how to sacrifice. Whether it’s giving up their Saturday night to study or forfeiting their sanity for a research paper, students don’t make it through four years on the Hill without occasionally casting aside their druthers. For Hamilton student-athletes, however, the sacrifices are a little bit different.

For Riley Smith ’12, the biggest sacrifice was her family. Due to the women’s ice hockey schedule, Smith only spent a week at her home in Rhinelander, Wis., for the holidays. Even when she returned to campus, “I usually didn’t watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve,” she recalls. “We always had practice the next morning.” But Smith didn’t make those sacrifices for herself. She made them because her teammates were right there with her. “We play a D-III sport, so it’s not like we’re playing for anything after college,” she says. “We play because we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Virginia Slattery and the women’s and men’s rowing teams took their dedication to the finish line. This past year, both teams competed in the ECAC Championships, which meant their seasons continued through finals week. Says Slattery, “We had to create a practice schedule around everyone’s exams. It kind of sucked because you want to give all of your energy to one or the other.” The women’s team did not end up winning, but they finished strongly; so did Virginia, who managed to turn in her senior sociology thesis on top of two papers and an exam. Through it all, Slattery has no regrets: “Of course I’d do it all over again. You sacrifice for a reason.”

In 1950, The Spectator ran a story in which it questioned the long-term viability of Hamilton athletics. Hamilton had won only 30 per cent of its games since World War II and experienced few major successes. The student newspaper wrote to President McEwen and suggested that he “seriously consider the proposal to form a league of colleges where athletics are played for recreation alone.” Astonished, an alumnus fought back, pleading with the president to do the opposite — suggesting the College should loosen it academic standards in order to attract more athletic talent. As for me, a baseball player, I sacrificed in the most literal way possible. I led the NESCAC in sacrifice hits (bunts). It’s a bit of an ignominious distinction — usually reserved for weak-hitting pitchers — but I did it because I could, and I did it because I knew my teammates had my back.

Herbert Blitz ’51, then a junior on the football team, realized the proposals were equally preposterous. Addressing those on both sides of the argument, he wrote, “I hope they realize they have something rare in their college. I hope they see to it that this college can continue to produce this rarity among men and thereby let Hamilton remain a worthwhile institution and one of the few things in this world to be proud of.”

As we begin the next 200 years of Hamilton College, it’s nice knowing certain things will never change. We may not be the best at sports, but few institutions produce finer student-athletes.

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