Northfield, Minn. is less than an hour away from the Twin Cities and home to two MIAC schools: Carleton College, founded in 1869, and St. Olaf College, founded in 1874. The schools’ combined population (around 5,000) makes up about a fourth of the town’s 20,084 population.
Carleton and St. Olaf are about seven or eight blocks apart, according to Carleton AD Gerald Young. He recently invited us on campus to see first-hand one of the state’s oldest rivalries between his school and St. Olaf—it dates back 106 years. “The townspeople have one [favorite] school or the other” and root for their favorite, Young told us at West Gym after last Saturday’s regularly scheduled basketball doubleheader.
The atmosphere there last weekend was like a dream for this longtime hoops curmudgeon. Unlike Minnesota’s Williams Arena, which is loud and commercials-dominated with an out-of-tune band and a nuisance Gopher mascot bouncing about, West was more Hoosiers-like: a small gym where students are up and cheering from tip-off to final buzzer without a PA announcer’s or overhead video scoreboard’s prompts.
“It’s just the purity of the game,” Young explained.
The host men’s team won the opening game 92-82, and as a result got the Goat. Legend has it that a St. Olaf student in 1914 fashioned a makeshift goat out of a chair and hung it from the school gym rafters to “goat” the visiting Carleton players.
That year the visitors won the contest and claimed the new trophy, and the two teams ever since have traded the Goat, which goes to the team that sweeps the season series. This year Carleton left the court holding it.
The nightcap was just as entertaining as the Carleton women hoopsters fought back from a 12-point deficit and defeated visiting St. Olaf 65-62 in the final couple of minutes.
“We were down at halftime, but we believed we could win,” Knights freshman guard Aiana Whitfield said afterwards. She finished with 11 points and grabbed both her two rebounds in the final minute to help preserve the come-from-behind win.
During a break in the action, we talked to several Black students from both schools, who clearly stood out in the mostly White crowd of almost 800 in attendance Saturday. According to College Factual.com, St. Olaf ranks number 1,560 in ethnic diversity (2.54 percent of the student body is Black), while Carleton is number 930 (4.67 percent Black).
“I come to a lot of games, especially to support the girls,” said St. Olaf sophomore Jordan King of Chicago.
“We all support each other,” said Carleton freshman Jancyn Appel from Kansas City, Mo.
Carleton senior Kmanual Williams from Texas added, “I come to all the basketball games that I can.”
Whitfield, the first-year Carleton guard and fourth-leading scorer (8.1 ppg) was the only Black player on the floor Saturday (St. Olaf’s K’Lynn Lewis, the 2018-19 MIAC Co-Rookie of the Year was injured).
“I came from a high school that’s predominately White,” Whitfield, a Benilde-St. Margaret graduate and Richfield native, pointed out. “I feel honored that I am one of the minorities that have a role here, and making my name well known.”
All four students briefly shared their appreciation for the longtime but underreported Carleton-St. Olaf rivalry.
“I think people think it’s only the big state schools that have rivalries,” Appel stressed. “It is not something stupid, but it’s real.”
Williams noted, “The rivalry is deeply embedded in who we are as schools.”
“Carleton does have a good team, but we believe in ourselves,” King said of St. Olaf.
“It’s more than just a regular game,” said Whitfield.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.