One Last Shocktoberfest, One Last Year: May I Have This Dance, Anteaters?

So this is what it feels like to be a senior. For the past few years I’ve been writing features on senior standouts at UC Irvine, never really understanding what it would feel like to have one last year of college. Of freedom.

Just think about what we do every day. We choose whether to go to class or not; once there, we choose whether to pay attention or Facebook chat the person sitting next to us. My class schedule this quarter consists of one class Monday and Wednesday night, along with three classes Tuesday from 2-10 p.m. I have four-day weekends every week. When the real world starts, those four-day weekends won’t return until we’re gray in the hair or fat in the wallet.

My brother once told me that he regretted graduating in three years and a quarter, that college is a time to be appreciated. After witnessing my fourth and final Shocktoberfest last Friday night, I’m beginning to realize just how little time I have left on this campus, so I guess this could be considered a living wake for the Class of 2013 in the athletic program and for anyone realizing that this is their final chance to see a women’s soccer game, to participate in an undie run, to buy boba on Ring Road or to give the Anteaters a proper sendoff.

A lot of my time at UCI has been spent living vicariously through our athletes. It’s a tug-of-war of epic proportions, maintaining my cool as an Anteater fan and critic. During the only game that I’ve ever spent in the press box at Cicerone Field, Matt Summers threw a no-hitter for UCI. Later in the game, a Long Beach State batter popped up a little dinker into no-man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and first base. Cat-like, Summers sprung from the mound and dove, making the catch. “YES!” I shouted in the press box, then sunk back in my chair and apologized to Daily Pilot writer Barry Faulkner and the Long Beach State media guys in the booth — forgot where I was for a second.

At the men’s volleyball championship in May, I lost my voice in the first two sets screaming at USC fans and cheering on UCI from the top of the stadium. I then sat quietly on press row in the third and final set as the Anteaters celebrated their final point. I gathered my pen, notepad and stat sheets and headed for the press conference as if I had no emotional attachment to what had just taken place. Inside I was fist-pumping and screaming harder than Tiger Woods after sinking the infamous putt at Torrey Pines in 2008, forcing an 18-hole playoff at the U.S. Open.

I was ecstatic, but couldn’t let Head Coach John Speraw, Carson Clark or the rest of the media know that. I’ve always felt like Peter the Anteater trapped in a robot’s body while covering games. Inside I’m doing cartwheels or shouting, outside I’m stone-faced.

Throughout these past few years I’ve become fascinated by the idea of an athlete’s career ending and the metaphorical funeral that takes place afterwards. It comes inevitably for everyone. For Lexi Kopf and a few other seniors on the women’s soccer team last year, it came in a penalty kick shootout at Anteater Stadium. Past the outstretched fingertips of freshman goalkeeper Jennifer Randazzo passed the white-and-black-stitched ball that those girls had kicked around since before they knew that X + 2 = 4 must mean X = 2.

Now Kopf is working towards becoming a doctor and is a research assistant at UCI.  It was a chilly evening on a damp playing surface as the University of Washington Huskies moved on to the next round of the NCAA Tournament. It might as well have been played at a cemetery. Midfielder Judy Christopher collapsed to her knees and sobbed, knowing that her UCI career was over. She was disappointed that she had missed her penalty kick, but was likely more taken by the idea of never wearing an Anteater uniform or playing for coach Juniper again.

I’ve mastered the art of explaining confusion. I’ve asked several athletes: “What’s next? Where do you go from here?” Few have a clue. For Jordan Fox, he spent his last hour in uniform, while chatting with me about his baseball career and posing for a New University photo shoot. A few days later, the 5 feet 8 inches tall, left-handed first baseman went undrafted, likely marking the end of any little leaguer’s lifelong dream.

Dan McDonnell, a 2012 graduate and men’s volleyball player, went out as best as any Anteater I’ve seen. McDonnell served up an ace on match point of the National Championship game against USC on the Trojans’ home court. He hit the walk off home run, sank the 40-foot putt for the win, nailed the three-pointer at the buzzer, sent the header into the back of the net — he won it! How’s that for going out on top?

In our four years of college, or for the redshirts, slackers and double majors — five years — we set out to discover ourselves. I came to UCI as a half-heartedly aspiring journalist, unsure of the industry and of the potential for failure that I may or may not have been setting myself up for in terms of an making-ends-meet while chasing ballplayers around for anecdotes and controversy.

I’ve taken some heat over the past few years. John Harbaugh doesn’t coach the San Francisco 49ers, it’s his brother Jim. Bryan Petersen’s last name doesn’t have an “O” in it. The women’s water polo team was in the NCAA Tournament, not MPSF. Like missing an open layup with no defender in sight, I’ve made my share of mistakes and stirred up some controversy. But I often think of a bit of advice that Yahoo! Sports writer Mike Silver, an NFL expert, told me of the importance of “stirring shit up while you’re in college.”

Silver attended Cal Berkeley two years after the infamous, “The band is out on the field!” incident between Cal and Stanford in the 1982 rivalry game, known simply as “The Play.” Throughout his four years at the Daily Cal, Silver was a troublemaker, which is what he tends to do today, revealing inside information about disgruntled NFL players; investigating the merit of the suspensions placed on New Orleans Saints players being punished by the Bountygate scandal; and even writing books about bad boy Dennis Rodman, the greatest receiver in history Jerry Rice and Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin. It was Silver’s column on Yahoo that recently begged the “WTF” question about why football was being policed by rent-a-cop-esque replacement officials. A few days later, the replacement officials were sent packing and the professionals we’ve grown to trust were back, making the appropriate calls.

As Silver explained to me over the phone a few months back, “football players at Cal used to get pissed at me. They’d say, ‘Hey man, why you gotta be so hard on me in the paper?’ It’s because I was trying to make it pro too. They’re trying to make it to the NFL and I’m trying to make it as a professional too.”

I know I’ve irked some of you often. I’ve referred to the men’s basketball team’s skinny center, Mike Best, as a year’s supply of Chipotle burritos away from being ready to guard Big West opponents. I’ve called out women’s volleyball coach Paula Weishoff for shifting her attention away from a struggling UCI team to the women’s national team. I’ve questioned whether Natalia Ledezma on the women’s soccer team had the nerve to take a game-winning shot when her team needs her most, or whether the athletic program should have ripped the band-aid off a tad bit slower when cutting swim, crew and sailing programs without warning.

I came to UCI, just as many of men’s basketball coach Russell Turner’s recruits have, to put the school on the map. In order to do so, I’ve strived to hold everyone accountable, not to lambast or embarrass, but in my own little way of hoping that it improves our programs on the court, in the sports marketing department, in the clubhouse or in the crowd.

Just like me, a group of freshman came in four years ago, as they do every year. For the men’s basketball team, it was Michael Wilder — the most recognizable athletic figure on campus because of a mushroom-shaped haircut and an infectious personality. It was Derick Flowers — once a speedy, unpolished point guard, now a tested athlete who has played in pickup games with Kobe Bryant and developed ball-handling skills that compliment the velocity of his footsteps. It was Daman Starring, who came as a transfer to UCI from Centenary during our sophomore year. Raw and athletic from the start, Starring now runs the Anteaters’ offense and has developed extremely complex handshakes with his afro-wearing buddy (Wilder). And then there’s Adam Folker, the center out of Canada who rebounds like Rodman and thinks like a CEO.

“Times are changing at UCI,” Folker texted me Friday night as we watched Dom Kennedy perform from opposite sides of the Bren Events Center as two of 2,692 fans in attendance. “A little strategic marketing goes a long way!”

Despite the fact that the soccer teams’ seasons are already half over, I’ve always considered Shocktoberfest as the annual commencement of UCI athletics competition. It’s Midnight Magic,  the point at which basketball teams around the nation may officially begin practicing together before starting their seasons in November. While a majority of students come for the MCIA dance performances or to see a dude rap about being faded or wanting one of the half-naked girls in the front row to come up on stage before he shows her to the VIP section afterwards, I was always anticipating the slam dunk contest and the battle of the sexes 3-point shootout between our men’s and women’s basketball teams. Screw Cat Daddy, I want to see Zack Atkinson levitate high above the key and slam it to a huge ovation.

One of my fondest memories will always be Russell Turner’s arrival to UCI, having come from the Golden State Warriors’ bench and past college basketball dynasties Wake Forest and Stanford. I spent a few hours at Gina’s Pizza with him discussing what he hoped to do for the campus and the basketball program, and witnessed his insecurities at the thought of the Anteaters underperforming in his first season, ever, as a head college basketball coach. All of that was thrown out the window when the 6 feet 7 inches tall 40-year-old coach with the Roanoke, Virginia southern drawl slammed a ball through the hoop at Shocktoberfest in 2010. Turner didn’t dunk on Friday night, two years removed from rocking the rim at the Bren, and it doesn’t look like we’ll see it again in the future.

“I think those days are behind us,” Folker said of Turner’s Bren-shattering dunk.

Like me, for Adam Folker, Derick Flowers, Mike Wilder and Daman Starring, this is their last go-round. With UCSB standout Orlando Johnson now competing for a spot in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers and the Long Beach State roster decimated by the departure of the class of 2012’s graduation, the time is now for the Anteaters to take advantage of their situation.

UCI basketball has never been to the Big Dance, known as the NCAA Tournament, but I’m sure I’ll speak for Folker, Flowers, Wilder and Starring in saying that the four of them wouldn’t mind their college careers ending at the hands of an absolute shellacking by Duke or North Carolina in the first round of March Madness. Let’s have our first dance in 2013, Anteaters.