My middle school soccer team was good. Like, really good.
The Blue Hawks (yes, our mascot was a fictional variation on a real animal, a fact I didn’t fully grasp until I had graduated) ran the D.C. area. If there had been a committee to rank the best small private school soccer teams, we would have likely been No. 1. We pummeled teams. Destroyed them. Crushed their will. We won two conference championships in my time on the team — and have the banners to prove it.
Regardless of our constant success, our opponents always came into our games with a level of ferocity that we only reserved for the playoffs. Students and parents would come out in large numbers to see the games when we played on the road. Opposing players would always seem to try harder (and in some cases play dirtier) than usual.
I only fully began to understand the reasoning behind this passion when I met somebody who went to another school in the conference. I mentioned the name of my school, and he immediately responded, “Oooh, you must hate us. We’re rivals.” I almost laughed — his school’s team was perennially mediocre; games against them were hardly marked on our calendars. Realizing he wasn’t being facetious, I quickly ascertained that to teams with little else to play for, the chance to take us down was their biggest game of the year. Every school saw us as their rivals. Which begged the question: what does it take for a rivalry to exist?
In the nearly three complete football seasons I’ve witnessed at UW, I have had a similar experience when it comes to our friends from Minnesota. Now, I will quickly acknowledge that not growing up in Wisconsin meant that hatred for all things Minnesota was never ingrained in me. I didn’t grow up despising the Vikings and the Gophers (side note: I still don’t get how people can hate those two teams with such deep passion, and then cheerfully throw on their Wild jerseys during the hockey playoffs? I get that Wisconsin doesn’t have a team, but I’m of the belief that if you’re gonna hate a region’s sports teams, you should be unequivocal about it). So I’m confounded that we even pay them any heed at all.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to have a playful disdain for Minnesota and its teams. But disliking a team and viewing them as a rival are two very different things. Thirteen consecutive years of victory and yet we still use the word “rivalry” to describe our relationship with the Gophers. Granted, there was obviously a time when the football rivalry was more fierce. But calling the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe a rivalry is conferring more respect on Minnesota than its earned in recent years. You wouldn’t see a boxer lose to his opponent 13 consecutive matches and still call the two rivals; they may still hate one another, but you’d probably take mercy on the poor sap and stop scheduling them against one another. A rivalry implies close competition to an extent, and in this case none exists. Until Minnesota can prove that it can compete at UW’s level, Wisconsin fans are only wasting their time thinking about them.
When my middle school team was beating our hapless counterparts by six, seven goals each game, we saw them as mere springboards. Those games would help launch us to future success and prepare us for the anomalous schools that did have the mettle to stop our offensive juggernaut. Even if some of those hapless counterparts used to be competitive, or could even claim a national championship back in 1960 (and 1941 and 1940 etc.), we didn’t bother worrying about beating them. And even if we didn’t like them, we certainly would not have called them our rivals. In that sense, I think all Wisconsin fans could learn a thing or two from the 2007-2010 Blue Hawks.