Volume 76, Number 45 | April 4 - 10, 2007

Dean Steve Baker, right, with Cooper Union student/athlete Jessica Galbro.

Cooper coach engineers winning teams in many sports

By Judith Stiles

There’s an old saying that behind every great team is a great coach, and that winning championships can be traced back to one man with a fire in his belly who is an expert at motivating players. Sports folklore purports that a team can have a lot of individual talent, but without a great coach to pull it all together, the team will go nowhere.

These days, college sports also need big bucks in order to send their teams down the road to success. But what about the athletic program at Cooper Union, where the college sports paradigm is atypical? At Cooper academics rule, athletics are secondary and there’s no money in the sports piggybank. So how come their teams still win championships? Their secret formula for success lies in a great coach who happens to be the engine behind not one, but many of their teams.

First of all, Dean Steve Baker, head of Cooper Union’s intercollegiate athletics, runs a top-flight program that students flock to. Second, wearing a different hat, Coach Baker knows how to consolidate the intellectual success of the students, bringing all that brainpower out of the classroom and onto the sports field.

“These students are used to great success with everything they do,” says Baker like a proud parent. “They are competitive, great problem solvers, and no one can challenge their work ethic.”

He’s quick to deny that his coaching was the key ingredient to the spectacular performance of the tennis team in November 2006, when they won the Hudson Valley Women’s Athletic Conference with an undefeated regular season. Plus, they claimed their first-ever H.V.W.A.C. Tennis Championship, where they won seven out of 10 flights.

When asked why they had such a great year, Christina Tu, Cooper’s star tennis player, smiles and simply points her finger at Coach Baker. Tu’s team racked up 33 points, easily beating the College of Saint Elizabeth with 23 points, while Tu won the flights at first singles, Leah Freed, second singles, Michelle Chu, third singles, and Mary Leigh Mackie, fourth singles. They even won all three doubles flights as well.

On Baker’s business card it says, “no gym, no courts, no fields, no pool, no horses, no time…no excuses.” The athletes on his teams study an average of 60 to 80 hours per week, carrying a difficult and demanding course load. For example, soccer star John Consiglio is currently taking seven classes: Advanced Thermodynamics, Mechanical Vibrations, Mechatronics, Engineering Lab, Heat Transfer, German and an independent study in which he is building a Formula 1 racecar. When he’s not studying, he changes the channel and goes to soccer practice.

“Through soccer, I learn a lot about management and teamwork. But the difference at Cooper is that we are often immersed in lab talk during warm-ups,” says Consiglio.

Neil Simon, a fellow student who plays sweeper on the soccer team, focuses on the economy of angles as he keeps his opponents from taking shots on goal during a game.

“Because I am the sweeper, I see the field layout and understand the angles, so I know which direction to push them off,” says Simon, analyzing his work on defense.

Multi-talented Mary Leigh Mackie, who shines in tennis, volleyball and varsity co-ed basketball, is studying mechanical engineering with the goal of attending medical school. Her academic focus is on tissue engineering and building better scaffolding for harvesting cells, in order to eventually improve the technology of skin grafting. She brightens with enthusiasm when she describes the details of her work. But don’t even try to understand the lingo of her pre-game lab talk.

Under Coach Baker’s tutelage, the co-ed basketball team has had several very successful years in the H.V.A.C. In the 2004-’05 season they boasted a record of 18 wins and no losses, and in 2005-’06, they were 16-4.

Springtime is here. But unlike at other colleges, Cooper Union students do not get a study week before exams, since classes are taught up until the day of exams. And it is a wonder they can squeeze in team sports with yearlong projects, such as building an artificial knee. This project involves research of particular interest to soccer star Christian Beck, who occasionally has knee problems himself. The information he is uncovering will help surgeons better understand meniscus replacement, as well as calculating a more accurate recovery time after surgery.

For midfielder Anastasia Petridis, her project is working with a group of students who are building a cement canoe that will be entered in a race at the conclusion of the academic year. Needless to say, they are experimenting with Styrofoam and other fillers for buoyancy, as well as researching the most efficient angles for maximum speed when paddling.

Indeed, it can be said that the canoe race is the perfect symbolic merger of academics and athletics at Cooper Union. Now it is up to the talented Petridis to hurry up and figure out if the students in her boat will sink or swim.

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