Laurier Athletics’ not so successful model

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Almost one year ago, Wilfrid Laurier University athletics director, Peter Baxter, found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Left in the aftermath of one of Canada’s worst economic recessions in decades, Baxter was not unlike many other program directors in the country as he tried to find places to cut costs, and cut them quick.

Citing numerous reasons in his decision to terminate both the men’s and women’s varsity volleyball programs (chief among them the sheer cost to continue them), Baxter axed the teams in early May, giving coaches and players four summer months to find other options.

A rapidly-growing Facebook group and mounting public pressure by the Laurier community wouldn’t budge the director’s steadfast decision. His mind was made up; there would be no more varsity volleyball in Laurier’s immediate future.

But in one sense, that would be alright, claimed Baxter in defence of the terminations. Even though the campus just lost two of its squads, the money and resources that were going towards keeping those teams afloat would now be going to the areas where Baxter and the department felt the school had its best chances of success. In essence, the school created its own version of the Canadian Olympics’ “Own the Podium” program and directed their efforts to the teams with the best shot of bringing a banner back to the school.

The volleyball teams weren’t anything extraordinary. They found themselves consistently in the middle of the Ontario University Athletics’ (OUA) pack, and they lacked the revenue-generating aspect that sports like football and basketball brought.

And so, in the fall of 2011, with a new funding model that included more money directed to football, basketball, soccer and hockey, Laurier would set their sights on winnable championships.

Fast-forward to today, and the first year of this tried (but yet to be true) experiment has been, essentially, a wash. Sky-high expectations shrouded at least three teams that have all but fizzled when it mattered most in the 2011-12 season.

Innumerable factors contribute to why sports teams don’t perform to perceived expectations, and in no way am I stating that one commonality existed between the following three squads that made them fall prematurely in their respective post-seasons. The unexpected is what makes the world of sport so great.

But the men’s football team, the women’s soccer squad and the men’s basketball group were meant to bring glory to the purple and gold this year, or at least, challenge for it. And while the women’s soccer team made an extraordinary run in the post-season, claiming OUA silver, the group couldn’t find it within themselves to reach that extra gear in the national championships, where they finished seventh, even though they knew anything less than gold was unacceptable.

Next, the money-generating behemoth that is the Wilfrid Laurier football team never really found their groove all season, and by the time their defensive efforts started to click for them, it was the offense that fizzled in the late stages of the season.

Now recently, and perhaps most devastatingly, the men’s basketball team fell out of contention in the first round of the OUA playoffs. The hype surrounding the team was unlike anything the school had ever witnessed.

Laurier had a legitimate, contending hoops squad for the first time in its history. The school that had typically been known for its pig-skin, was now feared for its slam dunks and three-pointers.

But just as fast as the school was growing in prominence on the court, it faded.

The team fell apart at the seams within the last two weeks of the campaign.

Whether the problem lies in strategies, systems, individual performances, injuries, coaching or nerves, Laurier’s Golden Hawks are starting to look a little bronzed. Exceptional seasons were followed by forgettable funks.

But in no way could this have been anticipated by the department.
Four teams had a chance, a very legitimate chance, of raising a banner at Laurier in 2012. And aside from the consistently terrific women’s curling group, the women’s hockey team is all that remains; a beacon of hope and a reminder that even a sure thing isn’t so sure in university sport (with their recent semi-finals scare).

These teams will start anew in the cyclical nature of post secondary sport in 2012-13. And if the departed volleyball teams could offer some wisdom, it may be to take advantage of the opportunities given. Because lord knows, they’re not guaranteed.

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