Look past the pigskin and the hardwood court

chris.yoder

News flash: People care about football and basketball teams more than other Cal sports!

Until Ivan Rackov becomes a household name like Aaron Rodgers, that’s not going to change. Tens of thousands will flock to Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoons, Haas Pavilion will host thousands more throughout the winter, and sports like water polo and rugby will continue to quietly succeed in front of a few dozen devoted fans.

The national perception of Cal as an athletic juggernaut will always revolve around the success of its two most lucrative teams, no matter how many more national championships the swim team racks up.

It’s frustrating — downright maddening at times — to think of all the talent that quietly walks the Cal campus, unrecognized and underappreciated. Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, two outgoing seniors whose prospects for stardom in the NBA are middling at best, have their faces splashed across team promotional materials. Tom Shields, a swimmer who has already won 11 national championships in three years, walks through Berkeley in relative anonymity.

It’s hard to keep track of Cal’s diverse array of international-level talent. In last year’s Director’s Cup — a rough measure of a school’s success in all NCAA sports — Cal finished ahead of every Division I school except Stanford and Ohio State. Twenty of Cal’s 27 sports garnered points for the Bears. Football and basketball didn’t contribute any.

It’s not that Cal fans are apathetic about smaller sports. Cal fans celebrate the success of their lesser-known teams and players, and there’s usually plenty to celebrate. Both swimming teams have won back-to-back national championships. Each golf team won its first Pac-12 Championship in school history last week. Cal’s tennis teams are among the best in the country.

But even the most diehard Cal supporters just don’t follow every varsity sport with the fervor of the biggest two. Loads of fans can tell me about Allan Bridgford, Brandon Smith and Bak Bak. Now what about Marcin Tarczynski, Brandon Hagy and Zsofi Susanyi?

Let’s put it another way: Can you imagine the attention Cal’s football team would get if it won three national championships in four years? The women’s swim team did, but you haven’t see Caitlin Leverenz — the Collegiate Women’s Swimmer of the Year — on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not yet, anyway.

Cal’s student-athletes graduate at a 79 percent overall clip — hardly admirable compared to the school’s 90 percent rate — but certainly better than the football and basketball teams, which have graduated players at 54- and 33-percent clips, respectively. The athletes you observe on smaller stages are more likely to be ones who end up with a degree from Cal.

It’s a lot easier to pay attention to the games that fill a stadium — the sports that show up regularly on SportsCenter. But a number of Cal’s best athletes are competing at the highest level the sport has to offer. If you’re not attending their games, you’re missing out.

Sometime next fall when the football team has you frustrated, go see a water polo match. If you ever grow weary of basketball, Cal has a hell of a rugby team. It doesn’t look like Cal’s baseball team will be going back to Omaha this year, but that’s fine: This year’s 48-3 softball squad is all but assured of a trip to the College World Series in Oklahoma City.

The women’s tennis team plays this Friday and Saturday at Hellman Tennis Complex. Ever heard of Jana Juricova, last year’s NCAA Singles Champion? The rest of the team — ranked No. 8 nationally — is pretty good too.

Now’s your last chance to see Jana before she graduates. Carpe diem.