On Feb. 12, as the men’s swimming and diving team was reaching for its fifth consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championship, most eyes were on the men’s basketball team. Students and fans packed Alumni Gym to capacity in anticipation for a game that Rider, a then 10-15 team, would lose. Every Rider fan had his or her heart broken by the Hollywood-style ending in a game that seemed as scripted as a favorite horror movie.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, New York, Zack Molloy won three gold medals and was named the Swimmer of the Meet. Rider swimmers set five records in the meet on their way to the championship, beating second-place Marist by 317 points.
But few in the student body seemed to care. Most were still disappointed about the basketball team’s loss, especially as SportsCenter replayed Justin Robinson’s last-second, game-winning three-pointer the next morning.
A significant portion of the school’s student body and faculty can tell you the men’s basketball score or the team’s chances for the rest of the season, but only a fraction of those students can tell you of the men’s swimming and diving’s historic successes in the past five years.
Swimming and diving is not alone when it comes to teams that do great things but get far little attention. Baseball has won two regular season titles in the last three years. Both soccer teams have won a MAAC title within the past two. Men’s and women’s track and field both won conference titles in 2013. Yet, neither basketball team has won a conference tournament since Rider joined the MAAC in 1997.
Last semester, the situation looked worse. Men’s soccer won a MAAC Championship, and women’s soccer and field hockey had respected runs at conference titles. Meanwhile, both the teams of the sport Rider promotes the most — complete with a celebration like Midnight MAACness — couldn’t buy wins. Men’s basketball this season went 0-5 in conference play before picking up a win, while the women went 0-7. And which did the Rider community care most about? Basketball.
Of course, in any school that has no football program, basketball is king — especially in a conference like the MAAC, where the sport is top dog.
But how long can our successful, smaller sports hide behind the curtains before they are blatantly ignored? Just because the basketball teams are struggling does not mean Rider can’t take pride in our several winning teams.
That is not to say the university doesn’t do anything to try and increase attendance for games outside Alumni Gym. The university designates certain home games as Code Cranberry to spur student athletes to show support for their fellow Rider athletes, but that still does not get the general student populace excited.
A couple of years ago, Rider Athletics attempted at a Rider Broncs Rewards program, giving points for attending games as recorded on an app. Most check-ins were worth 10 points, and prizes could be won by obtaining a certain amount. If one were to look at the app now, no upcoming events are listed, and those on the leaderboard are under 100 points.
Don’t get us wrong; it is an idea that can work. An app, however, is not going to be enough to bring people out to these games. This is especially true when students complain about how in order to attend these sporting events — which are all free, mind you — they have to travel to the athletic complex behind Poyda.
So how do you turn around the stigma that Rider is only a one-to two-sport centric school into one that is a respected NCAA Division I athletic program? It won’t be an easy process, and it will take time.
Remember the tailgate session done before the men’s basketball season-opening game against Princeton? Another is being held on Feb. 19 prior to the men’s basketball game against Siena. The school should do that more often and not just for basketball.
But that’s not enough to raise athletic spirit. A lot of people know the names of basketball stars from Jason Thompson to Teddy Okereafor, but they may not know track and field’s Emily Ritter, who has participated in NCAA’s for track, or the Molloy Brothers, champions from a family of talented swimmers. These sports may only see friends of the athletes or die-hard fans come out to cheer them on. They deserve more.
And while we’re at it, the social media for Rider Athletics need a major revamping. It’s not enough to give scoring updates, or promote upcoming games or the latest edition of the Rider Basketball Coaches’ Show. For Valentine’s Day, a fake commercial was produced that featured hit songs sung by men’s basketball’s Shawn Valentine. Every holiday season, they produce a holiday greeting from athletes, coaches and friends of athletics. Why not have more of these tweets and social media projects with a touch of comedy and pop culture, and involve athletes of all sports?
Finally, interaction is key, but it shouldn’t just be with the students or social media followers. School spirit is great; town spirit is better. This is an opportunity to promote Lawrenceville as a college town environment that not just the student body can be proud of. Locals can take pride, too.
High FIVE, men’s swimming. We’re so proud of you.
The weekly editorial expresses the majority opinion of The Rider News. This week’s editorial was written by the in-depth editor, Thomas Albano, and the sports editors, Carlos Toro and Brandon Scalea.
Printed in the 02/17/16 issue.