Light and choops

Graphic by Joseph Valdez

Michael Menz, PC ’17, may not even be six feet tall, but he is a basketball champion. Menz is not on the varsity basketball team. He’s not on the club team either. Nor is he on A-hoops or B-hoops, the two highest levels of intramural basketball. Menz is a choopion. After four years of flawless choops attendance, Menz, in his final year at Yale, got what he coveted: a choops championship for Pierson College.

Choops is the lowest level of intramural basketball. The quality of play is subpar. According to Menz, you can break down the people who participate into two categories: “people who have never played a sport and like basketball,” and “people who are really, really small.” If you know anything about basketball, you’d know that these things—athleticism and height—are important. You will not find any good player who is neither tall nor athletic. If you’re really tall, you can get away with being not that athletic, and if you’re really athletic, you can get away with not being tall, but never both.

Except in choops.

Success in choops is one of the few things in this world that is almost one-hundred percent dependent on effort. In MATH 120, no matter how hard you study, you are going to get a lower grade than the kid that did every homework assignment in five minutes and destroyed the curve so badly on both midterms that you cried. In choops, the playing field is level. No one is good. The only thing left to do is show up and give it your all. After that, nothing is important.

Menz is far from the only Yale student who has made intramural sports a huge part of his college experience. There are dozens of people from across the colleges who love IMs. Menz and his fellow choops teammates bring passion to Pierson College, one of the consistently mediocre IM performers. In Berkeley, fresh off its first Tyng Cup win in decades, Josh Hayden, BK ’17, Andy Hill, BK ’17, and Sara Metzger, BK ’17, cultivate a culture that may bring another championship to the college. In Hopper College, freshmen upstarts Josh Perez-Cruet, HC ’20, and Vikram Shaw, HC ’20, seek to turn the college from an IM laughing stock into a hotbed of raw IM fervor. Though their numbers are few, these people, fighting for nothing but college pride and relative athletic supremacy, are the true champions of Yale culture.
I am not an active intramural participant. In almost three years at Yale, I have participated three times: two times for choops and once for ultimate frisbee. This year, I haven’t been to a single one.

I always assumed that everyone was as ambivalent about intramural sports as I am. A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about intramural sports in Hopper College. Hopper is currently dead last in intramural standings. It’s considered a success if any given game does not end in a Hopper forfeit. The article was supposed to be about the potential for IM greatness that the name change—from Calhoun to Hopper—could possibly provide. I thought it would end up being somewhat of a joke. There was no way that changing the name of college would do anything to wake we Hopper students from our collective intramural slumber. At first, everyone I talked to said pretty much the same thing: “IMs seem fun, but I don’t really have time for them.” Some people had played an IM or two and others had never played an IM at all. With a million different things to do, IMs fall by the wayside.

These were all people who, on the surface, seemed capable of competing at an intramural level. Relatively in-shape people within one standard deviation of mean athletic giftedness. When I was a pre-frosh, I expected these people to be the ones voraciously competing for intramural and college glory. During my Yale tour, both the tour guide and the admissions officer who led the information session made it seem like everyone at Yale just ran around, loudly expressing love for their colleges. I imagined this would manifest itself in intense intramural competition. It would be like summer camp. People would get worked up over the most meaningless things, but in a charming way. They would put on their college t-shirts, rush on to athletic fields, and fight for college supremacy. If I got into Yale, my college would be objectively the best. I was so inspired by this expression of enthusiasm that I re-wrote my college essay, molding it into the story of how I led the clarinet and bassoon sections to victory in a music camp boat race.

As you might guess, I was a bit disappointed when I started freshman year. Yale, for the most part, is made up of the type of student that skips their homecoming football game to participate in a science fair or play in an orchestra concert. Nowhere was this mentality more apparent than at “Yale Up!,” Yale’s weak attempt to make freshmen peppy and enthusiastic about sports. People seemed confused as to how they ended up in a big basketball gym and were further confused by the songs that they would sing once, and possibly never again. I didn’t think Yalies cared about sports—especially intramurals. It seemed very not Yale-like to care so deeply about something that seemed so insignificant.

As it turns out, this wasn’t entirely true. The notion that all Yale students are sociopaths who don’t care about anything but their ascension into the ranks of the Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company is false. Some Yale students play IMs.

Intramural sports make champions out of the students most committed to seemingly trivial athletic competition.

Josh Perez-Cruet and Vikram Shaw—Hopper freshmen—are the shining stars of intramurals in a college that seems to sometimes forget that intramurals exist. The two are not only passionate about playing intramurals, but changing the whole culture around them.

Though Perez-Cruet, a Michigan native who wears shorts in the middle of winter, says he “sees IMs as a study break or incentive to get work done,” it is clear that they occupy a much larger part in his life. In all, I talked to him about intramural sports for about an hour. He has four copies of the same edition of the Yale Daily News on his dresser—the one containing my article about Hopper intramurals and his hope for athletic redemption.

Perez-Cruet has a long term vision for the future of intramural sports in the college, a future that he and Shaw play a vital part in. He didn’t let a rejection from the intramural coordination position in Hopper weaken his love of the game.

“I’m not skilled in any specific sport, but I have a lot of hustle and I’m really competitive,” Perez-Cruet said. During the winter intramural season, Perez-Cruet usually goes to between three and four games a week. His appetite for victory is insatiable and his reputation has been cemented even as freshman. Calling him competitive is an understatement. In broomball, he is known to check people, testing the patience of the referees who do not want to see someone get concussed during an intramural sport. Shaw, the other member of the duo, usually joins. Often, they’re the only ones to show up from the Hopper side, and the team has to forfeit. In some sports, however, two is enough. They once went on a badminton tear, winning several games in a row when no one else from Hopper College showed up. “I had never played badminton before and we won every game,” Shaw said.

The two are both invested in changing intramural culture both within Hopper and throughout Yale. They maintain that to improve IMs, two changes have to be made: IMs that are played on the athletic fields should be moved onto campus, and the rule requiring a minimum number of students to show up to matches should be abolished. “I would be able to play by myself against five people and put up points,” Perez-Cruet said.

But this kind of drastic change is hard. Tom Migdalski, the coordinator of Yale undergraduate intramurals, is doing his best to reduce forfeits and increase participation. “As everyone gets busy with academic commitments and many other obligations at peak times of the year, we all would like a shorter commute to our outdoor athletic complex,” he said. “But we obviously can’t move the fields any closer to campus.”

Migdalski, along with the other leaders of intramural sports at Yale, including coordinator Kellie Finn and Head IM Secretary and Webmaster Adam Jenkinson, PC ’17, have made several changes since the summer of 2015, a time “when [they] wanted to bring Yale Intramurals up to the next level,” said Migdalski. Among these changes was the addition of three new sports: broomball, spikeball, and indoor soccer. Unlike sports like football and ultimate frisbee that require a trek over to the athletic fields near the Yale Bowl, these sports are all played on campus. The shuttle buses, which used to drop students off at the varsity field house, now drop students off right at the fields. IM referees and supervisors also received new t-shirts. It’s now very official. But still, there’s work to be done.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve struggled with keeping participation consistent and high. We’ve had more forfeits than we wanted and some discouraged players and teams,” said Jenkinson, the student IM coordinator. He says that the organizers are all listening and doing everything they can to improve Yale IMs as a whole. For Jenkinson, the effort pays off. “When someone, even from a college that I just played against in an IM game, comes up and says they had fun and can’t wait for the next matchup, that’s what makes the job worth it.”

Perez-Cruet and Shaw are hopeful that IMs will improve both in Hopper and at Yale overall. “We’re gonna remember these interviews when we win the Tyng cup,” Perez-Cruet said.

One of the most perplexing things about IMs is that colleges located just a few yards from each other have drastically different intramural cultures. Berkeley, the current possessors of the illustrious Tyng Cup, and Hopper, currently last in the standings, are opposites.

It is probable that Hopper and Berkeley have nearly identical innate levels of natural athletic talent. After all, each college is supposed to be a microcosm of Yale’s diverse student body. Microcosm is the admission office’s favorite word. Chemistry majors, thespians, and intramural savants should be distributed equally.

But if you walk into the dining halls, this does not seem to be the case. Berkeley’s dining hall is filled with athletic-looking people wearing athletic-looking Berkeley gear. There are even stairs in the dining hall, giving Berkeley students an opportunity to work out while eating. But Hopper’s dining hall, especially when compared to Berkeley, is severely lacking in intramural spirit. While it is understandable why the college didn’t want to invest thousands of dollars into a wardrobe of Nike Dri-Fit (registered trademark symbol) shirts emblazoned with the name of a man who enjoyed buying and selling human beings, the lack of apparel is still kind of demoralizing. How are we supposed to compete without t-shirts?

For both colleges, intramural leadership starts at the top. When freshmen see seniors participating, they get that the sense that they too should be involved. Menz, who has unblemished choops basketball attendance, got started because every time there was an intramural game, he’d receive a text message from one of the Pierson FroCos. The seniors in Berkeley are similarly aggressive. Oftentimes, they’ll pick freshmen as captains, urging them to get their friends together to form a team. “We’ll message them throughout the day asking how numbers are,” said Andy Hill. “We spam a lot of GroupMes and group messages.” The Hopper seniors, used to failure, don’t try as hard.

Berkeley also receives strong, consistent showings from IM captains across the board. Sara Metzger, another IM secretary, is a well-known star, helping facilitate dominant spikeball, football, and volleyball performances. Aaron Hillman, BK ’18, leads the dodgeball team, sending weekly emails with stunning displays of emotional depth. “Tonight we humble the Morse dodgeball ‘team’ with our merciless service of flaming spheres of fluff,” one email says. He also leads the team during the match. “One time, Aaron showed up to IM dodgeball in a cutoff t-shirt and a straw hat,” said Josh Hayden, an IM enthusiast. “We didn’t win. It was a tragic loss. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much fun losing a game, though.”

Berkeley also has the most hype intramural sports video of any of the residential colleges. The two-minute video, shown to all Berkeley freshmen, switches from sport to sport—from inner-tube water polo to cross country to dodgeball in two minutes of awe-inspiring action. “For glory. For Berkeley. For the Thundercocks. For the Tyng,” the video concludes. What the featured athletes lack in visible athletic talent, they make up for with an unprecedented level of focus and glowing Berkeley pride. In the end, the video was effective. For the first time since the 1950s, Berkeley won an IM championship.

But even in colleges like Pierson, a perennial bottom-dweller in the standings, there are bright spots.

You don’t have to be athletic to play choops. In fact, you are required not to be. A-hoops, the highest level of IM basketball, is occupied by varsity athletes, club basketball kids, and kids who played basketball in high school, according to Hill. B-hoops is a step below. If you’re pretty tall or can kind of shoot, B-hoops is for you. Choops stands alone. And right now, Pierson College is home to the choops champions.

Among computer science majors, Menz is in the top percentile for both trap and tricep size. He looks like he’d be at least decent at basketball, but he assures me this is not the case. “I think what you have to emphasize is how bad I am at basketball. That’s kind of the key point.” His dribbling is not so good. His basketball IQ is low. Once he gets a rebound, he spends a few seconds thinking about what he should do next. He’s strong, but not particularly agile. These things are not important. His real role on choops is as a strong rebounder and the setter of “vicious picks.”

Though Menz may be consistently bad, he is also consistently there, no matter the strength of the team. His freshman year they made the playoffs but were bounced in the first round. The next two years, they didn’t make the playoffs once. But Menz and his teammates—Emmet Hedin, PC ’17, Zachary Jacobs, PC ’17, David Hatch, PC ’17, Narahari Bharadwaj, PC ’19, and Acer Xu, PC ’17—don’t give up. Hedin doesn’t let several concussions stop him from driving hard into the paint. Xu doesn’t let his poor shooting prevent him from jacking up ill-advised threes. Evan Green, PC ’17, the team’s coach, doesn’t allow the fact that a coach is completely unnecessary stop him from standing on the sideline with a clipboard during the team’s most crucial games.

Like any championship team, each player on Pierson choops has a role. “My job is to shoot a lot of bricks and play pretty poor defense,” Xu said. “At some point we thought about assigning positions and realized none of us were good enough to justify that.” Menz’ role is to stand under the basket, grab rebounds, and throw up layups until they go in. Hedin drives strong to the basket, daring God to give him yet another concussion. Hatch takes some absurd jumpers and yells about picks. Bharadrwaj is by far the team’s best player. “He can actually dribble and shoot the ball,” Xu said.

Led by Menz, the team smashed through the regular season, losing only one game. After earning a first round bye and winning the semifinal game, it was time.

In the IM championships, everyone that showed up for the sport throughout the season is allowed to come, and they all did. Fourteen players showed up. Fourteen unskilled, poor-shooting Yale students. But somehow, they caught fire. “We shot like 50 to 55 percent from beyond the arc in the championship game,” Hedin said. “Splash, splash.”

“Silliman was talking a big game before the championship,” said Green, the team’s coach. “But they just weren’t ready for the buzzsaw that is Pierson choops.” Basically, the team made a bunch of questionable threes. Silliman had no answer. With Dr. Davis, the Head of Pierson College on the sideline alongside dozens of Pierson and Silliman supporters, Menz and his teammates won their first intramural championship.

IMs are not about athletic talent. They’re not about strategy, and they’re not even really about winning. They’re about realizing you’re not very good and still showing up. Sometimes, that gets you a championship.

“Would I call it the culmination of my Yale experience? I would,” Menz said. “I definitely would.”

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