Occidental football fumbles: homecoming cancelled

Nathan Tolfa

Occidental College has cancelled the remainder of their football season due to a lack of players, meaning Whittier’s Homecoming Weekend will not include a football game and  Whittier will receive their first win on the gridiron since 2014.

“We are all disappointed by the cancellation of this game, especially for the seniors on our team,” said Executive Director of Athletics Robert Coleman. “However, we will make sure to celebrate their achievements at a football event following the conclusion of the season.”

“We kind of knew [Occidental might cancel their season]. We’d been seeing them cancel games early on in the season,” said Associate Athletic Director for Communications Lance Franey. “We just didn’t know how it was going to pan out later. There’s kind of all different scenarios going through our head of what might happen.”

“After lengthy and thoughtful deliberations, Occidental College … decided to cancel the rest of its 2017 football season,” Occidental’s Athletic Department said in a statement issued on Oct. 17.  Unfortunately, this includes their rivalry game, informally known as ‘The Battle for the Shoes’ against Whittier. Here, the teams compete for a pair of bronzed shoes once worn by Whittier College graduate Myron Claxton. The cancellation of Occidental’s season will result in the Poets recapturing The Shoes for the first time since 2013 and winning a game for the first time since 2014.

The Shoes trophy is awarded to the winner of the Whittier vs. Occidental Football game.

The Shoes trophy is awarded to the winner of the Whittier vs. Occidental Football game.

“Really don’t have any thoughts [on the win],” said Head Coach Mike Neale. “It’s something out of our control, and we keep the focus on what we can control. The game is not happening. So it’s just a non-factor and we’re preparing to end the season the right way. We want to win, but we want to win games on the field, and what happens off the field is entirely out of our control.” 

Some of Whittier’s football players are disappointed that they will not get a full Homecoming Weekend this year.  “I was just dismayed because we knew that we weren’t going to have a homecoming,” said senior kicker Eric Voss.  “We weren’t going to have a Senior Night, we weren’t going to have The Shoes game … all three were taken away at one time.” Voss also feels that, while Whittier has been given The Shoes, they have lost the chance to earn them.  “[I felt this was] a winnable game for us. We had more guys, we had better talent, we had better coaching, and we’d be able to say we brought The Shoes back. Now we’re getting them back, but we didn’t win them. They’re just being given to us by a technicality, and that’s disappointing.” 

“In 2015 we had numerous injuries,” said senior wide receiver Bryson Sanders. “In 2016 we got the new coach. We had a small recruitment class, but still fielded a team. We still made it happen, regardless of the results. We still fielded a team and competed and held up our end of the bargain to the rest of the teams in the division. It’s the biggest thing. You have a contract to play the game.”

The coaching staff has expressed similar feelings of dissatisfaction. “It’s certainly disappointing for us,” said Neale. “We’re only guaranteed nine games a year, and to have one of those opportunities taken away from us is certainly . . . not a positive experience for our guys, and especially our seniors.” 

One important aspect of Homecoming Weekend this year is Senior Night, a tradition where senior football players are recognized on the field before the game for the work they have put into their sport during their stay at Whittier College. “It would be like not being able to walk for graduation,” said Voss. “That’s the football equivalent of it because you play for most of your life, and that’s the one night where you’re recognized for that.”

 Whittier’s Athletic Department recognizes how important Senior Night is to their players. In response to the cancellation of Homecoming and Senior Night, the football coaching staff has worked with the Leadership Council on the Team to coordinate a banquet at the conclusion of the season serving as a makeshift event to honor the Team’s seniors. “We obviously can’t replicate a game day environment. There’s absolutely no way to make that happen,” said Neale. “But we definitely want to send them off the right way.” 

“I think the coaches, the staff, and the [College] are doing their best to make [the banquet] a memorable event for us, even though they were put in this terrible situation,” said Voss.

All Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) who played or will play a conference game against Occidental will automatically be granted a victory. This will count as a conference win, but none of the statistics from the games already played against Occidental will be counted, as it would be unfair to other teams who are unable to play against Occidental.

This year has been rough all around for Occidental’s Football Team. In addition to dealing with the growing pains of a new coach, ­— Occidental’s previous Head Coach, Doug Semones, retired in July and was replaced by Rob Cushman — the Tigers have reportedly been forced to play with sub-par equipment. As The Occidental Weekly reported last week, “An anonymous party submitted a Title IX complaint to Occidental College and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of an unspecified number of football players on Oct. 4, alleging that Director of Athletics Jaime Hoffman and the department of athletics hold an anti-male bias that has compromised the football team and its players’ reputation.” 

A number of Occidental’s players feel that they are not getting adequate equipment from the College and are therefore receiving unequal treatment in comparison to other campus sports. In the article, third-year Occidental player Carlton O’Neal describes how “[he’s been] wearing a type of shoulder pad with this elastic band that [he hasn’t] worn since [he] played Pop Warner in fourth grade.” Another Tiger player, fourth-year Christopher Garcia, said in an LA Times article, “Everyone else has better equipment than us … the coaches can do only so much when they’re not backed up by the people above them.” 

Whittier will not be able to play a different team for Homecoming Weekend, as the Homecoming Game is scheduled about a year in advance, and it would not be fair to ask another team to come and play at Whittier two years in a row. “That’s how you do it. It’s not fair to play a team back-to-back times at home and ask them to help us have a homecoming night.”

Football is not the only homecoming sport, as the Office of Alumni Programs and Giving stated, “On the [homecoming] schedule, you’ll find games for women’s volleyball, men’s water polo, a variety of alumni games, and men’s soccer.” The Annual Homecoming Poet Festival should also go forward this weekend, as usual. The Poets will go on the road to close out the season against Redlands and La Verne in November. (To read more about the history of the “Battle for the Shoes” see page 8.)

Listen to our full interviews with Senior Kicker Eric Voss and Head Football Coach Mike Neale below, and check out our soundcloud for other interviews and updates.