One of the things I love about college sports is that it turns the academic year into 10 months of competition. Unlike single-sport rooting interests like the Bills and Sabres, college sports features a shorter down period between the end of track and field in the early summer and the beginning of football news in August.
Furthermore, while my interest in the Sabres kind of waned this season, as I was out of town and they just kept playing kind of miserable hockey, another nice thing about college sports is that if one team craps the bed, there's at least a dozen more at your school of choice who are competitive with other schools. All you need to double (triple/ quadruple?) your sports intake is to learn the rules to more sports.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm a sports fan, or really just a competition junkie. Are curling and golf sports? Sure. But while I can't really do much of what curlers and golfers do, nothing in their arsenal seems all that impressive. And yet I'll still watch for hours.
It doesn't stop there. The Spelling Bee gets everyone's attention every spring, but I'll happily watch it just to see how people handle the pressure. I drag friends to roller derby bouts, and have spent wayyyy too much time watching head-to-head cup stacking videos on YouTube. Other than the World Cup, the only thing that's regularly gotten me to turn on the TV this summer is American Ninja Warrior.
I don't say any of this to brag - truthfully I think it's a bit of a personality fault how much energy I devote to it all - but only to show how stoked I am not just that football is back, but that the rest of UB Athletics is too.
I mean this very sincerely: If you're just a UB fan for the Football and/or Basketball, pick up another sport or two this year. You don't have to watch every game, or even really any. Just remember to check how they're doing every few days, and allow yourself a little fist pump when they win. When you do have a chance to watch games, they're almost always available for free on the MAC website. Take a chance to see just what new coaches in volleyball and women's soccer can do. When the winter rolls around, check out Alexus Malone and the women's basketball team.
I don't think you'll regret it.
McWhinnie and I are working on more comprehensive season previews for the non-Football fall sports, but if you want a quicker, surface-level survey of the fall, here's two quick bits of information from each team that will at least get you in the door.
Reasons for Optimism/Names to watch: Reed Sunahara and Tahleia Bishop
On a team level, last year was half a season of incredible success, followed by half a season of still-pretty-good, but not great. After reeling off 12 wins to open the season, dropping only three sets in, like, a month, the Bulls were hit hard by the MAC schedule and finished with a 6-12 record.
Enter Reed Sunahara. Whether Todd Kress got the boot because of a poor conference season or because of other issues remains one of the most popular non-revenue posts this site has ever seen, but Danny White quickly upgraded by nabbing former Cincinnati and US OIympic coach Reed Sunahara. There's a fellow leading the men's basketball team who had a pretty successful career in his sport, but Sunahara just may be able to match his swag.
If you're looking for a player to watch rather than an old Hawaiian patrolling the sidelines, turn your attention to Tahleia Bishop. The 6'0" junior racks up kills like your roommate's Halo avatar and is coming off a season that earned her not just First Team All-MAC recognition, but a chance to get some play in international competition. Regardless of the sport, that's not something many UB student-athletes can boast.
Reasons for Pessimism/Unanswered Questions: Replacing Svoboda and 5 other seniors,
Unfortunately, part of the reason we can focus so much attention on Bishop is because UB lost no fewer than six players to graduation, including superstar libero Kelly Svoboda, who spent her senior season earning national recognition and setting UB records before being named MAC Defensive Player of the Year at the conclusion of the season. This year's Bulls team will feature just two seniors, as Sunahara welcomes seven new faces to Amherst.
Reason for Optimism: 2013 Defense and Returning Experience
To an outsider, the women's soccer team might look like a team without a direction, starting over with a new coach after several years of ups and downs. But a closer looks reveals what just might be the foundation of a solid team.
The highlight of the 2013 season was unquestionably the defense: UB gave up less than a single goal per game while running out a lineup that included fully eight starters who have returned to the team for the 2014 season. The loaded lineup with experience keeping the ball out of the net should help as new coach Shawn Burke adjusts to the top job.
Reasons for Pessimism/Name to watch: 2013 Offense, Loss of GK Ainsley Wheldon, and Shawn Burke
It wouldn't be hard to convince you that Women's Soccer isn't on the brink of a breakout season - the stalwart defense from a year ago can come together with tons of experience, get the ball past a few more opposing keepers, and take a big leap forward.
Unfortunately, it might be just as easy to get you on the other side of the tracks. Despite the stifling defense, UB only managed six wins on the season because they just couldn't score any goals. Furthermore, the goalie who held it all together last year, Ainsley Wheldon, has moved on to that big soccer pitch in the sky and will no longer be patrolling the box for UB. Who knows how much of that .88 goals per game was Wheldon and how much was the now-experienced defensive front?
For a name to watch, you could go with whichever of four keepers on the roster takes over for Wheldon in 2014, but I think you have to go with Shawn Burke. Burke is one of the latest beneficiaries of 'the White Death,' the lightning-quick overhaul of UB coaching staffs at the hands of Danny White, but unlike many of White's hires, Burke was already on staff at UB. Many of the changes under the White Death have come under the provenance of "needing to better compete for MAC championships in all sports," but you wonder what Burke was able to say to separate himself from departed coach Michael Thomas.
Reasons for Optimism/Names to Watch: Russell Cicerone and Marcus Hanson
I don't think I can get away with another hundred words or so on Cicerone*, despite his successes this summer, even if he really is the Name to Watch, so I'll point the scope at his UB and FC Buffalo teammate, Marcus Hanson. At 6'1", the junior spent the summer learning how to use his size, to the tune of three goals and three assists in twelve appearances. Look for the big guy from Mississauga to provide a huge target for Cicerone.
*With a name like Cicerone, the sophomore is just begging for a nickname. For me, it's between "The Orator" and "The Beermaster". Marcus Tullius? Weigh in in the comments. Maybe, instead of a nickname, I just use a different Cicero quote each time.
For as much e-ink as I've spent on Cicerone this summer, this is still a team that won only three games in 2013. The team could improve by leaps and bounds and still be lower-middle class in the MAC, which boasts in Akron one of the top programs in the country and several other NCAA tournament contenders. Luring coach Stu Riddle away from Western Michigan was a huge get, and UB's best players spent their summer staying in form, but you wonder how much of a leap can be made in one year.
Names to Watch: Caroline Brown and Cameron Bruce
In the wake of Zach Ahart, who has, to my surprise, graduated, the UB harriers turn their eyes to a new leader or two. In sophomore Brown and junior Bruce the Bulls have their top returning finishers from last year's MAC Championship meet. If both can take a step forward this year, they can compete with the front of the pack.
Reason for Pessismism: Lack of depth, apparently Ahart graduated
I seriously didn't realize Ahart was a senior last year until I got to the very end of this post at 2 AM. I am ashamed and not fit to cover UB sports. Also I am sad, because he was far and away the best runner in Blue and White last year.
While both Brown and Bruce were our top returning runners last year, both finished 25 in their respective MAC Championships. For comparison's sake, Miami and Toledo on the women's side and Akron and EMU for the men had all their scoring runners in before the 25th finishers in those races. Simply put, UB needs to get faster across the board to compete on a team level.