St. John's Leaves Big-time Sports Behind

September 27, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

Another college sports season is under way. Highly recruited athletes battle on artificial turf in multimillion-dollar arenas packed with fans who paint their faces in team colors while athletic directors tally up the proceeds from fat television contracts.

And then there's St. John's College, the tiny liberal arts school on the banks of College Creek in Annapolis.

There, teams with names like Spartans, Furies and Druids trot onto a soccer field wearing hand-me-down T-shirts. Spectators lounge in the grass on the sidelines reading Plato and glance up occasionally to catch an exciting play.

Athletic director Leo Pickens runs the entire operation on $60,000 a year, which includes his salary and the stipends paid to part-time coaches. He also coaches the women's soccer club, referees most of the men's soccer and basketball games, and sometimes rows with the crew team.

The annual budget pales in comparison with the Naval Academy Athletic Association, which spends $7 million a year on intercollegiate sports.

"Running lean and mean gives us a certain kind of momentum and pride," said Mr. Pickens, a St. John's alumnus. "What we don't have in resources, we have to make up for in spirit."

At St. John's, which focuses its curriculum on the great books of Western civilization, you need a Greek dictionary and a course in mythology to figure out the names of the teams and their slogans.

The women's soccer team, for example, is called Kynai Kothonai, Greek for "female dogs from Hell."

The Spartans anoint the playing field with wine and pass the cup among their teammates before the game. Imprinted on their blue and white T-shirts is the motto "With it or on it," referring to the ancient Spartan's vow to return victorious from battle carrying his shield or have his body removed on it.

"It's a well-kept secret that athletics of all forms are played here," Mr. Pickens said.

About half of the school's 400 students participate in at least one school sport, most of which are intramurals. The most popular sport is basketball, which draws more than one-fourth of the students. Other sports include intramural soccer, flag football, basketball, volleyball, softball, handball, intercollegiate rowing and fencing.

While the annual croquet matches beneath the ancient Liberty Tree between the Johnnies and the Midshipmen may be the best-known sporting event at the 300-year-old school, croquet is not part of the official sports curriculum.

Some students, like Jesse Berney, who plays on the Guardians soccer team, never expected to find themselves on a college playing field.

"I was a terrible athlete, but I get a little better every year," said Mr. Berney, a junior from Baltimore.

Sarah Fremont, a sophomore from Chester, N.J., gave up soccer when she was in the sixth grade because she began to doubt her abilities. Now she plays not only for the St. John's women's club, but also for the Spartans men's team.

She hopes one day to win the school's highest athletic award: a blazer with the St. John's emblem. The prize is given to students who accumulate points by participating in sports contests.

"I like the whole attitude they have here," said Lili Zarghami, a freshman from Concord, N.H., who recently joined the rowing team. "Everyone is very encouraging."

Mr. Pickens said the school emphasizes sportsmanship over performance. Anyone who goes to a game is guaranteed playing time. All games end in handshakes.

The college even has its on version of flag football in which the team that is behind receives the kickoff, regardless of which team scored last.

"A lot of what I do is teach manners," Mr. Pickens said. "If they don't like to play as a friend, they won't play."

But St. John's athletics were not always so tame. In the 1930s, the college was a lacrosse powerhouse.

But in 1936, the school dropped its intercollegiate sports program, blaming it for interfering with scholarship and for an unhealthy focus on winning, and turned to intramural contests that stressed the joy of playing.

Men who want to play sports are assigned to teams when they enter the college. In their sophomore year, they are subjected to a draft and usually stay with the team that chooses them for the rest of their college careers. Even alumni may return to play on their former teams.

The women's program is run a bit differently. For some sports they are drafted onto teams, and in other events they are assigned. Women may play on men's teams if they wish.

Despite the ban on intercollegiate athletics, some teams have been permitted to enter contests against other colleges.

St. John's co-ed fencing team is a member of the Mid Atlantic Region of the U.S. Fencing Association, and the crew team and women's soccer club compete against other schools.

Rarely does Mr. Pickens have to warn students to give up sports because their grades are suffering.

"These are students who for the most part are intellectual bookworms," he said. "These students who play against each other in the day are going to be discussing Plato at night."

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