By Joel Alderman
It is one of the best kept local sports secrets of the year. It has been ignored by most of our colleagues in the media, if indeed they were even aware of it.
This is the story about a tremendously successful college basketball program right in our own backyard that just ended its season as national champions.
Unknown to all but those very close to the program, there was a team at Yale that finished even more successfully than the one that was runner up in the CIT (College Insider Post Season Tournament).
This “other” Yale team compiled a remarkable 26-3 record and, on April 13th, it won the Club Basketball Tournament of the NIRSA (National Intramural Recreation Sports Association), a group of 196 college club teams that held 10 regional tournaments leading up to a 32-team finals.
Except for those who have ties to Yale, very few others have been aware that club teams exist there. What follows is bound to surprise and illuminate most of our readers.
The nature of college club sports
College club sports have been around for a long time. Most of the formal programs started that way. They still exist and are much more prevalent and important to its participants than we realize. Some are well organized, have leagues, eligibility requirements and extensive schedules. Teams are affiliated with regional and national tournaments. Some of the tournament games are shown live and the videotapes are accessible on the internet.
Championship won in North Carolina
Playing at North Carolina State University’s Carmichael Gymnasium in Raleigh, an intramural facility, Yale won the NIRSA Club Tournament by eliminating six opponents. The entire championship game in which the Bulldogs defeated the Cal Poly Mustangs, 60-48, can be viewed at any time.
California Polytechnic State University should not be unfamiliar to Yale sports fans, nor should the Bulldogs be to those of Cal Poly, a highly regarded but low profiled engineering school. Before last year they had never faced each other in any sports competition. However, in October the Yale football team journeyed to its picturesque setting in San Luis, Obispo, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and upset the Big West Conference team.
After winning the club basketball tournament by beating the same school, the Yale team returned to its campus last week. There surely was no welcoming committee, no rally and of course no victory parade. That’s the downside of club sports.
But many in the Yale community had been alerted, though e-mail, the college newspaper, and word of mouth, to what was going on in Raleigh, and a sizeable number seemed to have been watching the live video stream of the title game. Words of congratulation and appreciation were and still are being abundantly expressed to the team members.
In the competition at North Carolina State, Yale played teams from three colleges, Dayton, Gonzaga and Cal Poly, who had won their respective regionals, and whose primary teams all played in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Cal Poly was in it for the first time and won its play-in game.
In contrast to the 21 days it took to get through March Madness, the club tournament, which started with 32 teams, was conducted over a grueling three days of almost non-stop action.
Yale played six games in 48 hours
The players were there, not for glory and adulation, but for their love of the game. They started in group play, from which Yale and Penn State advanced to the elimination round of 32. Then they embarked on a grueling course of one game on Friday, two on Saturday, and an incredible three on Sunday.
So for Yale to emerge as champion its players had to have been in top physical condition, taking part in six games in less than 48 hours. Not even the NBA has such a demanding schedule.
The games were played in 20-minute halves and moved along with a “running clock,” like in soccer. However, the clock was stopped for timeouts and in the final two minutes of each half during non-playing time.
Yale had a season to be envied
Despite playing only seven home games, Yale had an enviable 2013-2014 season. Included in its 26-3 record were championships in the Ivy (6-0), the Northeast Regional from which two teams advanced (4-1), and the National Tournaments (6-0).
The majority of the team’s games were played away from New Haven, but Yale did have seven at home and also hosted a five team round robin.
The squad was allowed to practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights in the John J. Lee Amphitheater, the same court where the men’s and women’s varsity teams play. Sunday practices and games took place in the Lanman center, a wing off of the historic Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
How the club teams function
Yale has both men’s and women’s club teams. They are recognized but not sponsored by the university, although they receive a small amount for expenses. “For our trip to the nationals,” said Co-President Kevin Kirk, “we paid the vast majority out of pocket. We also did some external fundraising to help us out.”
Kirk is from Springfield, NJ, where he played two years of varsity basketball at Jonathan Dayton High School. He is finishing his junior year at Yale, majoring in computer science.
He proudly points out that he and most of the players had offers from Division III schools. “This makes the level of competition very high on our team,” he said.
Each year anywhere from 25 to 40 candidates attend try outs in mid-September. The past season
Yale carried a roster of 19, which Kirk explained made for better practices and often allowed those with conflicting commitments and academic burdens to bypass some of the road trips. They usually traveled in private or rented vehicles, in a contingent of 10 to 12 members.
The makeup of this year’s team consisted of two freshmen, seven sophomores, seven juniors and only three seniors. They came from Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Indiana Georgia and California. Sets of parents from close enough places in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, New Jersey, and, most conveniently from North Carolina, made the trip to Raleigh to support the team during the tournament.
Yale’s uniforms (see team photo above) were ordered and paid for independently by the club, which also purchased a set of navy blue practice pinnies (jerseys) that it used when the other teams were in white.
They coach themselves
Yale played as a self-coached team. Kirk, and the other co-president, Matthew Glover, along with team co-captains Zach Miles and Ezra Ritchin , made decisions about starting lineups and substitutions. But it was not uncommon for a player to call for his own substitute if he was tired. Kirk said that “every player on the team provided input and we worked together to get better.”
The team captains and club presidents lined up opponents and scheduled games.
Will Bartlett was Yale’s high scorer and the tournament’s MVP. He and teammate Ezra Ritchin were named Club All Americans, equivalent to being on the all-tournament team.
The 6-foot 6-inch 200 pound Bartlett may be the only name familiar to Yale basketball followers. He was recruited by Coach James Jones and had a reserve role on the varsity for slightly over two seasons. He left the team early in 2012 due to persistent migraine headaches, but he did not leave the game. He opted to play club basketball, which has a lighter practice schedule and requires less of an overall commitment of time for a serious college student.
During the season Yale won the Ivy League tournament, which was modified because Penn and Columbia do not have club teams, and Cornell and Princeton could not make the trip. Babson College of Wellesley, Mass. was enlisted to make it a five team field.
Each squad played one game against the others in the first two days, then they were ranked based on record and point differential, with the bottom team being eliminated. A simple four team playoff followed, which Yale won by beating host Harvard, 43-39.
How club tournament games are conducted
NIRSA employs three student game officials per game, who are in training to become certified, There are also a large group of volunteers who take on such roles as official scorers, statisticians, running the time clock and operating the scoreboard,
Yale qualified for the national tournament by winning the double-elimination Northeast Regional at Boston University with a 4-1 record. Its loss was to Penn State, which it then defeated the next day in the quarter finals. The Bulldogs went on to beat Boston Univ. in the semifinals and Boston College in double overtime for the Region I championship.
There is a $350 entry fee into the regionals per team and the winners get a free bid to the nationals and a $550 travel and lodging allowance. Otherwise the Yale club would have had to pay a $450 entry fee and all of its own expenses.
There were 10 regional tournaments across the country this year, with each one invited to send its champion to the national event at North Carolina State. The rest of the 32 team field was filled by teams who had performed well during the year and were willing to pay the entry fee.
Here’s how these Bulldogs won the national club championship:
Yale 44, University of Miami 34
Yale 64, Ivy Tech of Ft. Wayne, Ind. 55
Yale 53, Dayton 50
Yale 72, Gonzaga 65
Yale 55, Southern Cal. 48
Yale 60, Cal Poly 48
Yale’s closest call came in the round of 16 against Dayton. The Flyers gained a tie on a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left. After a time out Yale went the length of the floor and won on a buzzer beater by Ritchin, 53-50. It was something similar to what Justin Sears did for the varsity in the CIT. A video of that game winner is available here.
Yale’s Zack Miles was the tournament’s leading rebounder with 41 and Michael Wiacek had 10 three-pointers.
The title, by coincidence, came one year to the day of Yale’s championship at the Frozen Four of the 2013 NCAA hockey tournament,
The nets are a big prize, even in club basketball
After they registered Yale’s first-ever club basketball national championship, the players even went through the familiar ritual of cutting down the nets.
It all goes to prove that competition on any level has its just rewards – even if those rewards are only slight recognition and useless fragments of nylon cord.
Yale club basketball is interested in arranging scrimmages with other teams during the coming school year. Managers or coaches are invited to contact Kevin.Kirk@yale.edu to make arrangements.