November 28, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 39°F


A shot in the dark

Weekday routines can blur into a stale monotony. What mark many of our college experiences are the weekends and how we spend them. This is part of a series of narrative accounts that capture pieces of the social scene in Ithaca.

photo illustration by Allison Usavage and Lauren Decicca/The Ithacan

In this snapshot, Senior Writer Byard Duncan gives a play-by-play of three late-night intramural games in the Hill Center.

It’s 11 p.m. on a Sunday in late winter and, in a stroke of aching predictability, Ithaca College’s campus is cold. Lake winds shoot up South Hill, twisting past buildings and around corners with an almost predatory intent. Crystals of snow swirl high above the Hill Center, etching loops through the sub-zero air.

Most wise students at the college are well-versed in the standard operating procedure for a night like this: Stay inside, read a book, slug a beer, fall asleep.

But for a group of hardened fundamentalists — true heroes of sweat-stained, mat-burned grit — weather and time are forces existing outside of their immediate priorities. Weather and time are anachronistic, inconvenient afterthoughts to more pressing matters: no-look one-timers, posting up, setting the dig. Playing under the Hill Center’s hallowed lights requires the right recipe of athleticism, insomnia and scholastic neglect. These warriors have chosen, in their own way, to take a flamethrower to that midnight oil.

In the first of three gyms in the Hill Center, two forces are locked in a classic, Manichean battle. The Black Team and the White Team dribble and shove past each other on the soccer court, creating a mutating yin-yang of shouts, jukes and passes. Young men and women — business majors, future physical therapists, scholars — have temporarily swallowed the nuances of their identities in order to join a side and rip shots at a hapless goalie. Men push women, women push back. It’s an adult playground scene, a game of tag with whistles and clocks and emotions always a degree away from their boiling point.

With each shot, the Black Team’s bench erupts into squeals of pleasure or disgust. Many playing tonight are varsity athletes, here to squeeze their competitive bloodlust into a smaller venue. Athleticism is evident as field hockey players sprint back and forth tirelessly — as soccer junkies cut down defenders with impossible precision.

“Two minutes! Don’t let him shoot!”

In a space one-third the size of a complete basketball court, the game is faster, shorter. The margin of error is razor thin. Each mistake is potentially devastating to a team’s advantage. Five-point leads regularly dissolve in minutes, and games are frequently won with a last-second goal scored from half-court. Skilled players can use these limitations to their advantage, taking shots from positions no one expects or slamming a pass off the Hill Center’s retractable walls.

The booming echoes of these passes are swallowed by a solid blue curtain that separates one intramural sport from another. The men in Gym 2, stomping and pushing their way through a fast-paced game of basketball, likely do not hear a whisper from the match next door. They’re too absorbed in an improvised, repetitive blunt-force trauma. As their huge bodies slap wetly against one another, the shouts they emit bounce around the Hill Center in a different way — they are meaner, deeper, peppered with haphazard expletives.

“You’re a f—–’ b—-!”

“… sloppy as s—!”

Unlike in the soccer game, there’s no stopping the emotional boil here. The slightest nudge becomes an unforgivable insult; questionable calls prompt a chimp-like display of hooting and posturing. Fortunately, the volatility works both ways — good plays are rewarded with shouts of approval, hugs and slaps on the ass. The line between friend and enemy is thin, but it seems to disappear altogether when the clock stops.

One athlete has just arrived. As he speaks to a friend, his eyes dart back and forth across the basketball court, assessing, calculating. He draws back long hair with a homemade headband. Rainbow tie-dye. He refers to the Advil he just took as ’vil.

“I think I’ll probably take it easy tonight,” he says without a speckle of irony.

Headbands, tattoos, socks pulled high — these are accessories of individuality in a game that deflates without teamwork. All the players on the court tonight are savvy enough to realize that winning means playing well with others, so they equip themselves with subtle ways to stand out — kernels of masculine bravado that are ironically flamboyant.

Other characteristics are unwaveringly similar among the men. All wear pristine sneakers that squeak with each turn and pivot. All have donned seemingly brand-new mesh shorts. Each athlete has cut the sleeves off his T-shirt, exposing thick arms that glisten with sweat under the huge incandescent bulbs. When the garbled tweet of a whistle cuts through the air, they herd themselves to the sidelines for water.

If the b-ballers are like ornery oxen, their neighbors in Gym 3 are like sparrows, dipping, zooming and clowning around a volleyball court. One outside hitter with a thin, muscular physique yanks up a pair of mismatched argyle socks before directing his teammates into a formation. Another player wearing a “F— Cortland” T-shirt fails to live up to its malice by joking with the opposing team. Volleyball, unlike basketball, is a game of utter and total reliance on others. Each point is the product of a synchronized dance. No one party can simply plow its way to victory.

For this reason, the carefully cultivated hatred normally seen in competitive sports falls to the wayside. The brunt of noise comes from shouts of encouragement or whistle blows that start play.

“Let’s go, Erik!”

“Nice hit, man!”

In a game where players make “kills” only half the time, athletes not equipped for impact sports get to really shine. Twice, a gangly man in the back row executes a magnificent pass. Then a woman who seems too short to ride certain roller coasters delivers a blazing jump serve.

Game over.

For now, at least. The athletes are hardly off their respective courts before a new set of teams drips through the Hill Center’s heavy doors. Juggling, passing and pulling IDs from their discarded coats, this reserve army begins the ritual anew. For the next hour, they will score goals and make baskets and bump and set and spike. They will scream cusses and encouragement and cusses meant to encourage. Then they will go to sleep.