Gaelic Park, Bronx, New York
NCAA Division I, MAAC: Manhattan Lady Jaspers – Canisius Golden Griffins 1-1
My second trip to New York is a disillusionment when it comes to football. The Red Bulls should have moved to the their new Red Bull Arena but the usual problems have ensured that the project has suffered a delay for at least a year. Because the minor leagues and the city leagues are over I will have to focus on the NCAA tournament.
Before my flight I had circled three games on my calendar but it quickly becomes clear I will have to make a choice between the two matches I had planned on the first day. After a not very long deliberation, I opt for the Irish option: Manhattan College plays in Gaelic Park, a stadium also used for hurling and Gaelic Football. The match that I had circled in red, the derby between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and St Johns Red Storm men’s teams that would take place later that week, was eventually cancelled because of on incoming storm.
Gaelic Park is located in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx and somewhat of an exception in that borough because Riverdale is still a predominantly white neighborhood with many Irish and Jews. The first signs of sports on this field came in 1926 when the GAA installed a hurling field here. After the bankruptcy of the GAA the city took possession of the grounds and in 1941 the area was leased to John O’Donnell who, as a good Irishman, added a pub and a dancehall. The area grew to a center for Irish music and sports, although in the 70’s bands like Deep Purple and The Grateful Dead would as well play concerts here.
In 1991 the local Manhattan College moved into the stadium and renovated it. The “Jaspers” installed astroturf and flood lights but retained the predominantly Irish vibe by keeping the name and renting it to the New York GAA.
The subway ride from Port Authority to Riverdale is one that indicates well how diverse this city is: it goes underground from Broadway to Central Park with its expensive flats and surfaces in the impoverished Harlem before passing past the wealthier neighborhood where the Columbia University is located. From there it goes through the poor grafitti-rich buildings of the Bronx to the quiet richer districts of Riverdale. New York is above all a city of contradictions.
The Big Apple is also a city of recognition: you can’t throw a stone without hitting a place that is known from literature or film/tv. That includes my metro stop: 242nd st/Van Cortlandt Park is the stop that protagonist Holden Caulfield visited in J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece “Catcher in the rye” and in retrospect I learn that the main character in Kerouac’s “On the road” also passes this beautiful station.
Riverdale may be a quiet, relatively unknown neighborhood at the tip of the city of New York, they have no lack of famous people: John F. Kennedy, Mark Twain and Ella Fitzgerald lived here and baseball legend Willie Mays and 30 Rock actor Tracy Morgan still live here. But I did not come here for them and a short walk of about two blocks later I arrive where I want to be: the exterior walls of Gaelic Park.
There is no one at the box office and after about 5 minutes of waiting and 5 people that have passed through I decide to just enter as well. The inside of the stadium is an accumulation of small constructions and buildings where the changing rooms, canteen and offices are located and one long metal stand over the length of the field. On the other side of the field are the commentators box, the players area and the scoreboard.
I’m over 20 minutes early and review what I had already researched at home. Manhattan College is a Catholic University that was founded in 1853 and with approximately 3,000 students is not exactly classified as a superpower. The most famous alumni is probably writer James Patterson. The women’s team of the University are the Lady Jaspers. Brother Jasper was in the late 1800s a well-known sports prefect at the school and is, according to legend, the inventor of the 7th inning stretch, a somewhat bizarre baseball tradition where fans (and formerly the players on the bench) got up in the middle of the 7th inning to stretch their legs or get some extra refreshments. The Lady Jaspers play in the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) of the NCAA but never (partly due to the presence of powerhouse Loyola) managed to set the division alight.
Canisius College is a Catholic University from Buffalo, New York. It was founded in 1870 by German Jesuits and bears the name of Petrus Canisius, a Dutch priest who was important in the Counter-Reformation. The nickname of the sports teams are the Golden Griffins and the ladies teams are called the Lady Griffs. Just as their opponents the Lady Griffs have never managed to clinch the MAAC division title.
The match starts as usual with the American national anthem and the about 30 spectators join in loudly. For a Belgian it remains something unreal. Soon after the first whistle rings through the stadium, it is clear that the Lady Griffs are a much stronger team than the home team. Especially the raids by attacker Sylvia Kowalski invoke terror within the heart of the defense of the Lady Jaspers and after half an hour of almost constant pressure and small chances she benefits from a good cross and hands the visitors a well earned lead. Kowalski scores her eleventh goal of the season and is now the leading goalscorer of the MAAC. That Canisius and Kowalski do not widen the gap with Manhattan in the first half is primarily due to the two central defenders Amanda Fisher and Jill Beauchamp who manage to get a boot or a head on every cross or through pass. Manhattan barely manages a shot on goal and I fully expect another 2 or 3 Canisius goals after the break.
There’s not half time entertainment during this women’s match but I am introduced to something the world will curse about a year later: one of the supporters has managed to secure a vuvuzela and after three tries I can barely contain the urge to wring the damn thing around his neck cartoon style. I am apparently not the only because from the commentators box comes the urgent request to stop or to be expelled from the stadium.
The second half starts as a mirror image of the first half: Canisius pressing but failing to score and Manhattan trying at times to break out quickly. In the 54th minute such a counterattack places Kristin Spiros near the goal and she manages to put her head against a cross from Courtney McMahon. The ball seems like an easy prey for Griffs goalkeeper Daniella Pettinari but gets a deflection from a fellow Lady Griff and disappears behind Pettinari in the net. 1-1 and bewilderment hits both the players and the training staff of Canisius. The nerves are now taking the upper hand as a win would put Canisius to take the top spot in the MAAC and it does not inspire good decisions: Sylvia Kowalski is sent forward and the Golden Griffins begin lobbing long balls in her direction. Kowalski is doing the best she can but against the bigger and stronger defenders of Manhattan College it is nearly impossible to win headers and duels. Normal game time ends at 1-1 and this signals overtime in the NCAA. Kowalski is moved back a line and is again her dangerous self but after the double overtime the Lady Jaspers manage to hold on to the 1-1 draw.
The Lady Griffs plod off disappointed but would later in the season reach the semifinals of the MAAC tournament. The Lady Jaspers did not place for that tournament which was, not coincidentally, won by Loyola.
While the players hit the showers a large group of men with hurling gear arrive and suddenly I’m back in Ireland: no more American accents: the typical growling accent takes the upper hand and I actually hear some Irish. I follow their match for a bit but since most of them have advanced both in age as in weight I leave after a good 20 minutes.
The man seated at the exit says “Slán” and without thinking I reply “Slán”. He gives me a short nod that makes me think of a quote from “Catcher in the rye”: “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.”