College ties remain strong among Columbus rookies

First-year Crew players stay faithful followers of former schools

Rich Balchan had some jesting – or maybe jousting – words for fellow rookie Aaron Horton when they greeted each other Thursday morning at the Columbus Crew’s training facility.

“They’re winning because you’re not there,” Balchan, a product of Indiana University, said after his Hoosiers dropped a 3-2 overtime decision the previous night to Horton’s former school, Louisville.

This type of collegial bantering is common, especially among the first-year players who still have strong ties to their programs.

“I’m always talking to coach, talking to the players,” Cole Grossman (pictured above) said. “It’s still a big part of my life. I love Duke. I miss it so much. All the rookies still like talking about their teams and their schools.”

While there is the Big Ten rivalry between Balchan and forward Justin Meram (Michigan), and there’s the Hoosier state chatter Balchan has with Ben Sippola (Indianapolis-based Butler), all the young players seem to gang up on the boastful Grossman.

“Without a doubt,” said Eric Gehrig who, although a rookie, is two years removed from his career at Loyola University Chicago. “Sometimes it gets a little annoying, but he’s proud.”

Grossman pleads guilty to egging on his teammates about his beloved school.

“Most of the banter is directed towards me, ‘The Dukee,’” he said. “‘The preppy Duke kid. Duke thinks they’re better than everyone.’”

Well, are they?

“Oh yeah, for sure. No question,” Grossman joked. “I handle it well. I think it’s pretty funny.”

During the Crew’s idle Labor Day weekend, Grossman and several other players returned to their former schools to lend support.

“Everybody wants to see their school play and do well,” Meram said.

The Wolverines reached the national semifinals last season, but they’re 3-8-1 this year.

“You kind of want to get out there,” Meram said. “When you’re seeing them struggle a little bit, you want to help.”

Horton, who spent one season at Louisville before signing as the Crew’s first Home Grown Player in May, said he felt the same way watching the Cardinals.

Contrary to Balchan’s remarks, Louisville (7-3) is not better off this season so far without Horton. His late winners in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the 2010 College Cup were instrumental in the Cardinals’ run to the final, where they fell to Akron.

“I went for the first game this season vs. UCLA,” Horton said. “It was nice seeing everybody, but it was weird not playing and seeing them warming up, thinking, ‘That was me out there a year ago.’”

Meram has been back to Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines also were in Columbus recently to play Ohio State.

“We were down 1-0, then we scored,” he said. “I was pretty loud. Then we scored again and I was even louder. Then Ohio State got an own-goal to tie it up and won it in overtime.”

If the players can’t see games in person, they have other ways to keep track of their schools, including Twitter.

“[Duke] streams a lot online, but they’ve actually played twice on FOX Soccer channel,” Grossman said. “I watch as much as I can and get updates from the players and coaches. I’m still into it.”