Indiana crowned Division III mascot champion

Holy cow, those Saxons of Alfred University know their way around an online battlefield. They put up a mighty fight in the final round of Sports Illustrated’s Campus Rush voting contest to determine the best nickname in Division III sports. Their namesake, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, would be justly proud.

Alas, Vixens and their supporters are quarrelsome indeed and the Great Mascot Debate has been settled in a 51-49 squeaker. It didn’t always look like a win for Sweet Briar, though. Over the weekend, spirited Saxons stormed the website and led in the vote count by as much as 62 to 38 percent.

Indie
Indiana

Ah, but the Vixen, though she be but little, she is fierce. In the contest’s closing hours, Vixens came out of the woodwork — in some cases popping their furry little heads out over and over again to vote — and pulled off a comeback for the ages.

In case anyone doubts the fervor of these two college communities, more than 110,000 votes were cast — and they don’t have 3,000 students between them.

Alfred University, founded in 1836 in the village of Alfred in Western New York, is one of the oldest coeducational institutions in the U.S. Sweet Briar is a staunchly all-women’s and considerably smaller private liberal arts college in Central Virginia.

There are similarities, too. Alfred is known for its state-sponsored programs in engineering and art and design. Sweet Briar is one of only two women’s colleges in the country with an accredited engineering degree program. Both lie on rural campuses in mountain foothills — the Alleghenies and Blue Ridge respectively.

Both engender so much affection and loyalty from their alumni that they repeatedly crashed the competition website. As the Vixens mounted a furious charge in the final 10 hours of voting, which ended at 10:30 a.m. July 6, more than 40,000 votes were cast — and that doesn’t account for fans of both schools who couldn’t access the site.

More than bragging rights rode on the outcome of this contest, which started six weeks ago as a 32-team tournament on CampusRush.com pitting Division III teams against one another. Last week, as the final round of competition was heating up, Sweet Briar suggested a friendly wager: the president of the losing school would wear the other’s mascot costume.

So, either President Phil Stone of Sweet Briar would have to don the trappings of Li’l Alf the Saxon or Mark Zupan, Alfred’s brand-new president (who started July 1!) and all-around good sport, would dress up as Indiana the Vixen. It was the furry fox’s pink bow that gave Zupan the most pause.

As partisans of both sides took to cyberspace to egg each other on, soon-to-be President Zupan weighed in on Facebook on the eve of his first day in office.

Li'l Alf
Li’l Alf

“Keep the votes coming, Saxons!” he implored. “I woke up in a cold sweat last night after a nightmare of having pink bows all over my hair!”

What the Saxons probably didn’t know is that Sweet Briar is an internet-voting juggernaut — with an even bigger history of defying enormous odds.

Last fall, the College won a national contest to bring “Late Night” host Seth Meyers to campus for a performance. In the spring, avid voters won a concert by “Fight Song” artist Rachel Platten.

Platten’s signature song was especially poignant to the Sweet Briar community, which was shocked in March 2015 when its former board announced the College was closing due to financial difficulties. The alumnae rallied to oppose the closure, raising legal challenges and more than $12 million in three months to force a mediated settlement that kept Sweet Briar open.

During the spring of 2015, Platten’s “Fight Song” became an anthem that helped propel the alumnae and their supporters to victory.

President Stone, after a year on the job, knows to expect nothing less than full-on effort from the Sweet Briar faithful. Still, it’s something to behold, he says.

“I continue to marvel at the energy and support of the Sweet Briar alumnae when their college’s interests are at stake. I can assure President Zupan that wearing the Vixen suit is a badge of honor. I have been riding the Vixen cart all year!”

“I have appreciated this friendly competition with Alfred and commend supporters of both schools who participated. It’s clear that Saxons feel as deeply about their school as we do ours and I appreciate that, too.”

En route to the finals in the Great Mascot Debate, both Sweet Briar and Alfred vanquished formidable opponents. Alfred, seeded sixth in its bracket, was the tournament Cinderella, knocking out the likes of the Webster Gorlocks and the No. 1 seed Stormy Petrels of Oglethorpe University.

Sweet Briar, a No. 2 seed, brought down the gavel on the Brandeis Judges before taking on Mary Baldwin’s Fighting Squirrels, the Sarah Lawrence Gryphons, and finally duking it out with the Banana Slugs of UC Santa Cruz.

None was as close as the final score in Vixens vs. Saxons. Indiana tips her pink bow to you, Li’l Alf.