Just a slump: Despite hiccups, varsity teams continue to chase titles

In the last two years, Dartmouth has won one Ivy League title across all its varsity sports. The Big Green is hoping to change that.

by Will Dehmel | 8/30/23 1:20am

by Hannah Li / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue.

Princeton’s magical run to the Sweet 16 round of March Madness this year shined a bright light on the small but historic conference that is the Ivy League. But how has that league — comprising eight of the top universities in the nation — held up in the modern age? With so much focus on the Power Five conferences, what has happened to a league whose stringent academic standards repel some of the nation’s top college athletes? Most importantly, how has Dartmouth fared?

The Dartmouth spoke with Rick Bender, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Varsity Athletics Communications, about the history of Big Green Athletics — its successes, its evolution and its future.

According to Bender, while the very nature of the Ivy League’s high academic standards makes it difficult for most high school athletes to even consider the conference as a viable option, thousands each year still do. And thousands each year still receive offers and enroll.

“It’s not an unusual choice for high level athletes because they’re looking for the best of both worlds,” Bender said. “They’re looking for a place where they can be competitive on a national stage — and they can, in a lot of sports in this league — and also get that education and the networking that you get when you come to an Ivy League institution.”

Baseball player Aidan Plummer ’26, a pitcher, was eager to succeed both athletically and academically.

“With Dartmouth being in the Ivy League, it did help me to choose Dartmouth over any other school,” Plummer said. “The degree that you get can take you so far in life — the connections that you make, the relationships that you build, it’s second to none.”

And as Princeton’s run in the NCAA tournament revealed, Ivy League teams can indeed be competitive on a national stage. Take a look at Dartmouth’s recent athletic performances, though, and that may not seem to be the case. In the last two years, Dartmouth has only won a single Ivy League title across all sports. 

“The last couple of years have not been terribly successful, unfortunately,” Bender said. “There have been some successful sports here and there — women’s rugby winning a couple national titles, sailing’s had some success — but the marquee sports, we haven’t had much success there.”

The Big Green’s sole Ivy League title from the last two years, the 2021 football title, was followed up by a 3-7 2022 season in which Dartmouth finished second-to-last in the Ivy League. Many see  football’s poor 2022 campaign, in combination with baseball’s 2023 campaign, when the team finished the season 3-38, and conclude that Dartmouth Athletics are subpar.

But for both baseball and football, last year’s seasons were unfortunate anomalies that broke up long streaks of success, according to Bender. 

“When I first got here, [baseball was] just starting off a pretty long string of success,” Bender said. “Dartmouth won eight straight division titles from 2008 to 2015, and they won two of those eight Ivy League Championship Series.”

So what current students may see as an ill-performing team, Bender sees as a perennial contender that has struggled as of late.

“For the last 20 years, they have been in the top of the league most years,” Bender said. “There have been hiccups like last year, which was shocking, but that was very much an aberration from what the team has been.”

Football, too, has been quite impressive since Bender arrived at Dartmouth in 2008. His first year here, the team went 0-10, but since then, they’ve won three Ivy League titles and been one of the league’s top squads, with 9 of 14 seasons since 2008 winning at least 50% of games.

Plummer does not believe the past unsuccessful season will affect the baseball team’s future. 

“I don’t really think last year’s season will affect future recruiting classes,” Plummer said. “Every program has its ups and downs. Last year was obviously not what we wanted it to be … but we’re going to bounce back this next season.”

Dartmouth’s past successes, while a bonus, weren’t the only reason Plummer came to Dartmouth. “I didn’t really look at the recent baseball rankings too much,” Plummer said. “Obviously, Dartmouth’s baseball team has been consistently successful over the last 10, 20, 30 years.”

The facilities and coaches also played an important role in his decision to commit to Dartmouth. 

“[The facilities are] second to none, especially in the Ivy League,” Plummer said. “We have two indoor practice facilities, we have an absolutely gorgeous baseball field … Our coaches are amazing. They want you to get better not only in the game of baseball, but the game of life.”

While baseball and football have historically been dominant, strong coaching has led other Dartmouth teams to steadily climb in the rankings as well.

Men’s heavyweight rowing, for example, has seen incredible success since the introduction of head coach Wyatt Allen, a former gold medal Olympian, in 2014.

In 2021, despite the impacts of COVID-19 on the conference, the Dartmouth team placed third at the IRA National Championship.

“It had been 17 years since they had qualified for the grand finals at the IRA Championship,” Bender said. “And they were the first varsity eight [boat] to win a medal in almost 20 years. They shared the national title with [United States Naval Academy]and [the University of Pennsylvania]in 1982.”

They followed their IRA’s performance with a fifth place finish in 2022 and seventh place finish in 2023.

“It’s been a steady stream of finishing in the upper echelon of teams,” Bender said. “We’ve had quite a number of folks that have excelled on the national stage, too.”

Additionally, a number of rowers have gone on to row internationally, like William Bender ’24, who qualified for the World Championships in the men’s pair.

“Wyatt Allen has done a really good job in building the program back up, especially with COVID,” Bender said. “When that hit, he really maintained and continued to build the program.”

Rower Luke Marshall ’24 agreed.

“It all starts with Wyatt, he’s very passionate about the project and has been the entire time he’s been here,” Marshall said. “And you can see how that’s transcended down through the rest of the squad, and everybody is very committed to driving the program forward and trying to leave it in a better place than where we found it.”

And with the success will come more success, Marshall explained.

“I didn’t have as lofty goals as I do now,” Marshall explained. Initially, he expected Dartmouth to be merely a “mid-level” rowing school. “I want to drive this program forward, to really make a change in the rankings and the traditional rowing landscape.”

Recruits are incentivized to choose Dartmouth not only for these past successes, but for the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse, which allows rowers to train indoors during the cold Hanover winter.

But success isn’t promised in an Ivy League landscape that continues to improve year by year. 

“In my 15 years here, the Ivy League as a whole has gotten much more athletic,” Bender said. “When I got here, [men’s and women’s basketball] were not very highly regarded nationally in the rankings. They have both really come a long way, and women’s basketball is among the top eight conferences in the country right now.”

For Dartmouth itself, the continued success of the league challenges the Big Green’s very own place in it. He used men’s basketball as an example.

“The team we have now is much more athletic than when I got here. Overall, as a unit, it’s a much better team,” Bender said. “You don’t necessarily see that in the standings, though, because the entire league has elevated as well. So everybody’s trying to keep up with each other.”

So the race will continue. Facilities will be upgraded. Coaching staff will be optimized.

The only thing uncertain, of course, will be those at the head of the pack.