- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

Michigan State, North Carolina, Villanova and Connecticut will guard each other, fake each other, drive on each other and shoot over each other this weekend at the Final Four.

But no matter how many times Jim Nantz or Clark Kellogg refer to the teams as battling or fighting, it won’t be accurate.

The true fighting starts Thursday at College Park’s Ritchie Coliseum, with a national championship at stake.

Twenty-three schools - Kentucky, Penn State, West Virginia and Nevada among them - and nearly 90 boxers will battle at the National Collegiate Boxing Association national championships, held for the first time at the University of Maryland.

Yes, college boxing is alive and well, and it has been revived at Maryland by a former Penn State national champion who will coordinate the tournament, which starts with quarterfinals, followed by semifinals Friday and the finals Saturday night.

“This is a dream week for me,” said Luke Runion, who won a national championship as a super heavyweight at Penn State, came home to Maryland in 2004, started a boxing club and team at the school and now serves as coach. “All the work over the past four years starting the club, and the student leaders that followed me, it makes me feel good to have the nationals come to Maryland. It’s a big deal for these student-athletes.”

There’s the phrase - student-athletes - that often draws laughter in the case of many big-time college sports. But for the Maryland boxing team and the 40 others throughout the country that compete in college tournaments, the student-athlete is fighting to keep that bygone notion alive.

“There is no recruiting and no scholarships,” Navy coach Jim McNally said. “It is for the true student-athlete. It is designed for boxers with little or no amateur boxing experience. It gives them a chance to participate on a club sport level. The only school where it is a varsity sport is at the Air Force Academy. They get a little more funding and a paid assistant coach for that.

“It gives the kid who might have been a high school football player or basketball player or whatever, not good enough to play at that level in college, to go out for the team. They were pretty good athletes, just maybe a little too small or slow for their sport in Division I, or got tired of playing a sport they’ve been doing forever, and try boxing. Some of these guys at the end of four years have gotten pretty good, pretty competitive. Some have turned pro, but that is not the goal of the program. Some have gone on to higher levels of amateur boxing.”

Boxing used to be a popular varsity sport at a number of colleges, including Maryland. It drew more than 10,000 spectators to tournaments in the 1950s. But the competitive gap between schools that didn’t offer scholarships and those that did became too great.

“So you had novice boxers going up against seasoned boxers, and guys were getting hurt,” McNally said.

So schools began dropping boxing, save for a handful of California colleges that kept it alive. Then the National Collegiate Boxing Association formed in 1976, and slowly boxing grew as a club sport.

In nearly all of those places, it has been a labor of love.

“It’s hard to run a college boxing program,” Runion said. “We are a club sport, the students have to balance training and running early in the morning and our gym is off campus, so a lot of freshmen and sophomores who don’t have cars have to carpool. We are pushing for an on-campus gym.

“The first year we started, I was training guys on a wrestling mat,” Runion said. “We still have a practice on campus, but we don’t do any sparring. We just hit the bags and other stuff. We have probably over 100 people in the club who do the workouts there, and we have between 10 to 15 of them who compete on the team. We do pretty well. We had five people go to regionals and qualify for nationals.”

An off-campus gym shows how unique boxing is as a college sport. Imagine Gary Williams having to take his team down to the neighborhood courts every day to scrimmage. That is what the Maryland boxers do - spar at Round One, the Hyattsville gym run by local boxing icon Adrian Davis.

“Adrian’s been very good to us,” Runion said. I think it is good work for his boxers and our boxers. But it’s hard. There are different styles - the amateur style of collegiate boxing, hands up high, looking for the points, conflicts with some of the pro styles in the gym.”

McNally has an excellent boxing facility on the third floor of McDonough Hall, with several rings where his team works out. The rich history of Navy boxing is on display there. Plaques name the academy’s champions for each year, such as the 1967 champion at 145 pounds, “O.L. North” - as in Oliver North.

Also on display are the five national championships that McNally’s teams have won in his 23 years in Annapolis.

Navy will look to add a sixth this weekend (Army won it last year and is the favorite going into the tournament).

“It’s a tough tournament,” said Midshipmen boxer Michael Steadman, who won the national championship last year at 175 pounds. “Three fights in three days. It’s intense, but it is an amazing experience, and I’m looking forward to doing it here in Maryland.”

Added fellow Navy boxer Rick Wiegert: “This will be huge at Maryland because they have guys fighting, we have guys fighting. It will be a great atmosphere.”

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