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Original Issue

Green Mountain Giant Tiny Middlebury produces teams to match its impressive new facilities

One would be hard-pressed to label Middlebury College a bona
fide jock school. Not so long as the varsity athletes pump iron
in the same weight room as the rest of the student body, there
are no athletic scholarships, and the football coach won't cut
any student who wants to be on his team. But there's no
mistaking the fact that this highly-regarded liberal arts school
nestled in the Champlain Valley of Vermont is a wellspring for
athletic success at the Division III level.

Just consider this Murderers' Row of Panthers programs: The
women's field hockey team won the NCAA championship two weeks
ago, beating William Smith 3-2 in overtime, and the women's
cross-country team placed seventh in the NCAAs last Saturday.
The men's soccer team, undefeated in the regular season, lost in
the first round of the NCAAs. The women's ice hockey team hasn't
lost to a conference opponent in 52 games, and the women's
lacrosse team has been in the NCAA semifinals for the past five
seasons, winning the national championship in 1997. The men's
hockey team has won the national title each of the past four
seasons, while the ski team, competing in Division I,
perennially finishes with a top 10 national ranking. Barring an
epic collapse, Middlebury has a good shot at winning this year's
Division III Sears Director's Cup, awarded to the school with
the best overall excellence in NCAA competition. "Success breeds
success," says athletic director Russ Reilly with a shrug.

But what really gives? How has this unremittingly preppy
school--best known for its language departments and the summer
immersion program--transformed itself from a modest member of
the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) into
a sports powerhouse? For one thing, the athletic department took
a cue from its Division I counterparts and adopted a "build it
and they will come" philosophy toward recruiting. Since 1990,
Middlebury has constructed a track and field complex, a football
field with stands that look out on the Green Mountains and a
swanky natatorium (read: wildly expensive pool). The crown
jewel, scheduled to open in early January, is a
state-of-the-art, $17.5 million ice hockey rink that is being
funded largely by donations, the biggest from a former Panthers
hockey player. "I'm not sure kids are going to come here just
because we have a great new building," says Bill Beaney, the
men's hockey coach who also oversees the golf program. "But
appearances matter, and we hope they'll see this and realize the
commitment it stands for."

Middlebury has also benefited from encouraging athletes to play
multiple sports. More than 100 of the school's 700 athletes
(drawn from a student body of 2,160) will earn more than one
varsity letter this year. "Even if you're good enough to do it,
a lot of Division I coaches don't want you playing another sport
in the off-season," says junior John Giannacopoulos, the leading
scorer for the soccer team and a starting forward on the hockey
team. "Coming to Middlebury and not having to give up either
soccer or hockey was a big selling point for me."

Same goes for Kirstin Gerety, a senior from Anchorage who was
the leading scorer on the women's soccer team and a top Alpine
skier. Geography enriches Middlebury's appeal as well. Situated
on a hill overlooking the village of Middlebury, this pastoral
campus is chock-full of playing fields and is within a few miles
of well-groomed ski trails.

Not that all this warmth and Patagonia fuzziness for sports has
met with unqualified applause. A number of students and
professors worry that the school has made a Mephistophelian
bargain and the unseemly appurtenances that attend big-time
athletics are lurking around the corner. For now, anyway, that
hardly seems a problem. Played in front of sparse crowds,
Middlebury games feature little jaw-dropping athleticism but
lots of superannuated virtues such as ample ball and puck
passing and plenty of postgame handshakes. What's more,
Middlebury is a place where the term "student-athlete" doesn't
provoke smirks. A full 100% of the senior varsity athletes
graduated last year, including lacrosse captain Brandon Doyle,
who nearly missed a crucial game when his French horn recital
ran late.

Perhaps a more salient concern is whether the $25 million
earmarked for the new pool and hockey rink might have been put
to better use, say, endowing more professorships or providing
more student financial aid. But Middlebury's president denies
that athletics are exacting an academic price. "We're striving
for excellence across the board," says John McCardell Jr.

Middlebury athletics, in other words, might simply be the
sweatiest of the liberal arts.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Heidi Howard helped the Panthers win the '98 NCAA field hockey and '97 lacrosse titles.