James Rowe, Lilly Blair, Cyrus Pace and Selam Mekonnen all qualified for the finals of the National Collegiate Sports Analytics Championship, and Rowe, Pace and Mekonnen earned a second-place finish in the Game Analytics Division. Courtesy of Roanoke College.
James Rowe, Lilly Blair, Cyrus Pace and Selam Mekonnen all qualified for the finals of the National Collegiate Sports Analytics Championship, and Rowe, Pace and Mekonnen earned a second-place finish in the Game Analytics Division. Courtesy of Roanoke College.

The annals of Roanoke College athletics list two glorious achievements on a national scale.

First, the school’s 1972 men’s basketball team won the NCAA Division II championship with victories over Eastern Michigan and Akron in the final four.

Six years later, the Maroons’ men’s lacrosse squad captured the Division II by a one-goal margin over Hobart.

Did you know that another group of Roanoke College students nearly joined those two celebrated teams this winter in the pantheon of greatness?

No? Missed that headline? Well, Roanoke professor Roland Minton is out to spread the word.

Minton is the chair of the Department of Mathematics, Computer Science and Physics. 

This year Minton took on another job: coaching the college’s entry in the AXS National Sports Analytics championship, where the Maroons took second place behind Syracuse.

That’s right: Roanoke’s four-person team of seniors James Rowe, Selam Mekonnen, Cyrus Pace and Lilly Blair used brains, not brawn, to earn the Maroons a national runner-up finish in the inaugural competition to the Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse.

And did the team celebrate by going to Disney World?

Nah. They went to Alejandro’s.

* * *

Any sports fan who hasn’t heard of analytics hasn’t been paying attention.

Analytics, sometimes called sabermetrics, entered the national consciousness in 2003 with a book by Michael Lewis called “Moneyball, The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game.”

The concept picked up steam with the 2011 movie “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt in the role of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, whose radical ideas about how to apply statistical data to on-field strategy in Major League Baseball have made a lasting imprint on the sport.

Oakland’s use of analytics created new statistical methods of measuring the value of players in hopes of enabling the small-market team to compete with big-budget franchises that were able and willing to dish out a higher payroll.

The use of analytics has its supporters and detractors, but there is no question that the study of statistical trends has influenced sports. The infield shift in baseball became so prevalent in recent years that the Major Leagues have installed a rule for the 2023 season requiring two infielders to be positioned on each side of second base with both feet in the dirt until the pitcher releases the ball.

Why was the rule instituted? Partly because of the use of data to determine where some batters were likely to hit ground balls, the overall batting average in the Major Leagues dropped in 2022 to .243, the lowest since 1968.

Every major professional sports franchise has one or more full-time number cruncher.

And just like the on-field talent, these teams are looking for the next young phenom.

So the national sports analytics championship was born.

The organizers of the event have put on a business and sales analytics competition for the last decade. This year, a sports analytics competition was added, open to college teams across the country and scheduled for Feb. 1-2 in Dallas with Baylor University as the host school.

Just one problem, though. A vicious winter storm hit the Metroplex, forcing the competition to be held virtually.

Missing out on the trip was a major bummer, particularly to Pace and Rowe, who were anxious to meet face-to-face with representatives of professional teams.

Both are scheduled to graduate after finishing a course or two in the fall semester. Both already have paid internships with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dogs minor league hockey team and the Salem Red Sox Carolina League baseball club.

Rowe, a Charlotte native who moved from North Carolina with his girlfriend and their dog, cannot wait to get on with his career, hopefully in the big-time sports industry. 

He isn’t particular about his first full-time gig.

“Anywhere in professional sports,” he said. “I love baseball. I love golf. I love basketball. I love football. I’m just trying to work my way up, pay my dues, get in the door somewhere, event coordination, game operations, front office, anything.”

An impressive lineup of professional recruiters was scheduled to meet one-on-one with the college students during the two-day event in Dallas. Rowe lost his best chance to make a first impression.

“It’s a very competitive field,” Rowe said. “There are thousands of people trying to get in every day.

“During the actual competition I got to talk with a lot of professionals, and they kind of give you an idea what to expect and what you need to do. But it’s hard to make an impression over Zoom.”

Instead, the students stayed home and were given a five-hour window to break down a massive amount of data and make a five-minute PowerPoint presentation based on their findings.

The data — play-by-play of every single field goal attempt, rebound, assist, steal, turnover, blocked shot and free throw from the 2018-19 Big 12 Conference basketball season — was emailed to each contestant in a huge Excel spreadsheet.

“I want to say, 70,000 rows of Excel data,” Rowe said.

Tipoff time for the students was early, 7 a.m. Competitors advancing from the first round had to make a second presentation in the afternoon.

“Mental stamina definitely played a part,” said Pace, a Cave Spring High School graduate whose PowerPoint focused on the efficiency during the 2018-19 tournament of Texas forward Jaxson Hayes. “I had to sit there and stay focused that long.”

The competition was intended to include 64 individuals from a variety of colleges across the country, bracketed in groups of four similar to the setup in World Cup Soccer.

The entrants were seeded from results after a preliminary round held in November with Rowe 14th, Blair 16th, Pace 19th and Mekonnen 21st.

Blair did not participate in the national competition; she would have been unable to travel to Dallas because she is a member of Roanoke College’s women’s lacrosse program. A Salem High School graduate, Blair was named the ODAC offensive player of the year and an NCAA Division III academic All-American in 2022.

Pace and Mekonnen advanced out of pool play to the second round. Despite having the 12th-highest score in the field, Rowe failed to advance because two other competitors in his pool scored better.

Imagine being in a World Cup pool with Argentina and France.

Rowe can.

Each college that had at least three individual entrants earned a team score. The final standings were:

  1. Syracuse

  2. Roanoke

  3. Trinity (Texas)

  4. Pacific

Were the Maroons close to the Orange? Not really. Think Georgia 65, TCU 7 in the FBS championship game.

“We were in second, but they were in first by a long shot,” Rowe said of the powerful Syracuse lineup. “They had their own programming. They had experience, too. They interned with UFC and professional teams. I think the guy in my group ended up in the final four.”

Syracuse’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics has its own Sports Analytics Program, using technology that many other schools, including Minton’s Roanoke College program, cannot yet match.

“Our guys were just using basic Excel, and the communication and thinking skills they’ve learned here,” Minton said. “It was significant accomplishment to pick something to look at, analyze it, sort it, compile it.

“But they had no way of competing with the computing power and statistical knowledge Syracuse was throwing at us. They got a good look at what big-time analytics looks like. Most of the Syracuse guys were graduate students. They’re using big-time computing facilities and sophisticated statistical models.”

Roanoke College offers partial course credit and an interdisciplinary concentration of study toward a degree with its analytics program. Minton also began a program in 2015 where students work on a crew at varsity sports events on campus, tracking various statistical trends and offering their findings to the Maroons coaching staff.

Minton said his reasons for offering credit for sports analytics have been twofold.

“I did that partly to get students something on their transcript but also to simplify the process of getting students into stat crew,” he said. “I really started it to try to get some sort of collaboration between academics and athletics.”

Roanoke College men’s soccer coach Ryan Pflugrad appreciates the extra help.

“They’ve given us statistics both in-game and at the end of games and throughout the season,” said Pflugrad, a 2002 Roanoke College alumnus.

“For years they’ve been helping us track completed passes in certain areas of the field. It helps identify areas of the field where players have helped us possess the ball. There’s not a concrete line between possession and winning soccer games, but it certainly is a strategy of play to have the ball more.

“We’re fortunate to have them track the some of this stuff. In athletics if you can gain a 1% or 2% [advantage], maybe it’s helpful.”

Blair and Mekonnen have worked for the stat crew, which operates independently from the school’s Sports Information department.

“It’s not my career choice, but it was a fun experience,” said Blair, an actuarial sciences major who plans to work in the insurance business.

Mekonnen, an international student who attended high schools in Germany and Ethiopia, is a data sciences major who admittedly is better versed in data collection than interpretation.

“I did this for experience and credit,” she said. “I’m interested in analytics. I’m more of a soccer fan. I know a lot about basketball, but not that deep, not to the level required to do the analysis.”

Traditionalists and sabermetrics proponents have meshed about as well as oil and water.

Minton, a former golfer on Virginia Commonwealth University’s club team, has written several analytics books on the sport, including “Golf by the Numbers: How Stats, Math and Physics Affect Your Game.”

Minton received access to the PGA Tour’s StatLink program and was able to analyze every shot taken in tour events from 2004 through 2018. 

“I was really lucky and had good timing to get good access to the PGA’s in-depth data,” he said. “They’ve got every shot measured to the inch. Each year had about 1.2 million shots.”

One of Minton’s discoveries was that PGA pros make a higher percentage of putts from the same distance for par than they do for birdie. Minton sought out former local touring pro Chip Sullivan for an explanation.

“He said it didn’t surprise him at all,” Minton said. “He said it’s just a mental thing. You have to make the par putt, which I thought was really interesting.”

The Roanoke College professor understands there is plenty of skepticism about the use of analytics in sports.

“There’s a lot of pushback,” he said. “I gave a talk one time and one of the questions was a fantastic question: ‘I don’t mean to insult anybody but would you say analytics is ruining the game of baseball?’ Part of the answer is ‘Yes.’ It’s put all the shifts in, it’s saying stealing a base isn’t worthwhile.”

On the eve of March Madness, more than one NCAA basketball coach has expressed dismay about how the various computer rankings work.

Blair’s athletic background gives her a perspective about the positives and negatives of the reliance of sabermetrics.

“It’s good for sports where people can interpret statistics correctly,” she said. “I think casual watchers look at stats and make inappropriate conclusions based on stats that they see.

“It requires some nuance to be able to analyze statistics correctly. I think it can be a little dangerous sometimes.”

Minton’s only regret with the analytics program at Roanoke College is that he did not begin it sooner.

“I wish I’d thought of it 20 years ago,” the 67-year-old professor said. “I’d love for it to be a major. The barrier is how many students are we going to get in who want to do all the computer courses and the statistics courses.

“Roanoke College, like every other place, it’s not a steady state right now. Small schools are facing a lot of challenges. Partly because of COVID, our enrollment is not where we want it to be, and in the next few years the number of eligible high school students is going to drop.

“I think this is going to be popular but I don’t know if a small college is ever going to be super good at this.”

Minton is hopeful Roanoke will be able to field a team of seniors in 2024. He will have to do some on-campus recruiting.

“The people who run this only want kids who are entering the job market,” he said. “I’ve got three rising juniors and four rising sophomores. But a year ago I wouldn’t have said I had four seniors for this year.”

The 2023 Roanoke College Maroons were good enough to place second in the national championships, even if only four teams sent enough individuals to qualify in the team standings.

The Maroons earned some campus recognition via social media and a news release.

No one met the national runners-up at the airport because there was no trip to Texas. There were no face-to-face meetings with representatives of professional sports franchises. There was no brush-with-greatness selfie with Dallas Mavericks owner and business mogul Mark Cuban.

But the college did spring for a free dinner. As hungry as the Roanoke analytics team was for a national championship, these seniors were simply hungry for a free Mexican meal at a local Alejandro’s Restaurant.

“I didn’t meet any marketing professionals there, unfortunately,” Pace said. “But the salsa bar is top-notch.”

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school...