The end of the season comes for every team. For some that final loss is expected and anti-climactic for others it can be completely unexpected and for a few it is devastating. The closer you come to be the last team standing, the more painful the exit. As the field narrows to the final few teams the margin of victory often follows suit. One unbelievable play, one bad bounce, one missed assignment, one poor call and your season can be over. When the handshake line is finished the autopsy begins. Sometimes our demise is a self-inflicted and sometimes we just tip our hat to our opponent. In time we find peace with the result.
There is unfortunately one scenario where we feel like our season was stolen, like the playing field was tilted or tainted. A few months ago, the New Orleans Saints were denied the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl because of a blatantly missed call late in the NFC Championship game. Not even Ram fans could defend the officials non-call, it was that obvious. There was a title wave of outrage.
Last Saturday in the quarter-finals of the women’s D3 playoffs I learned exactly how those Saints fans felt. UW-Eau Claire had just taken a 3-1 lead early in the third period on a powerplay goal. The number one ranked St. Thomas Tommies looked stunned as the Blugolds celebrated.
Then, like a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from, it happened.
The official, in perfect position, that had just called the goal, began talking with another official and eventually conferred with the goal judge. I don’t believe anyone else in the entire arena knew what was going on. After a grueling five plus minute conference at center ice with all four officials, the goal was waved off. The explanation—the net was off.
Mind you, there was no one complaining that the net was off, no one adjusted or touched the net to indicate it needed to be put back on. All video and photographic evidence confirms, without a shadow of a doubt, that the net was indeed not off. Yet the goal was waived off. Blugold coaches, players & fans were equally stunned, but they played on. There was, however, a huge shift in momentum that Eau Claire never recaptured. St. Thomas went on to win the game 4-3.
I have always been a defender of the difficulty of officiating and will continue to support them. There are so many factors that go into a call and subjectivity is in the eye of the beholder. I can be upset about a trip or check that I don’t agree with, because I understand we see things from different perspectives in a game. Make no mistake about this call, it was dead wrong.
We depend on the governing bodies, in this case the NCAA, to assign the best officials to work these playoff games and then we entrust the management of the game to those officials. At the same time, we often forget that officials are susceptible to mistakes just like the rest of us. We expect them to be competent, to be fair and to be accountable. We demand they manage the game, but not influence the outcome. None of those criteria were met with this fictitious call.
With no word from the NCAA we are left to speculate about what happened. In the wake of the recent NCAA admission scandal it is a short jump to wonder if foul play could be involved. A St. Thomas win would earn them the right to host the Frozen Four. The emotions of a loss like this run at a fever pitch and no motive seems too extreme. Accusations are leveled with no regard for those in the line of fire. Few things can bring us to the zenith of emotions like sports. Like the Saints scenario the optics from any viewpoint are not good.
It is a situation much like a year ago that will likely lead to a change in future D3 competition. Last year, Eau Claire was involved in a play-in game that took place on Friday. They won in triple overtime, only to have to come back and play again the next day against a well-rested Hamline team. They lost 3-2 and now the play-in games are on Wednesday. It is a good bet that change will follow this obvious blunder. Pardon the Blugolds if they feel as though they have been cheated for the second year in a row. Consecutive senior classes are now left to wonder “what might have been.”
As the cauldron of emotions boiled, Blugold head coach Erik Strand stayed above it all. In the lockeroom he told his team exactly what they were unprepared to hear, the truth. “The officials did not lose the game for us, we had plenty of time to finish and win the game, we just didn’t get it done. This is the hand that we are dealt, not sure why right now, but everything happens for a reason. We will definitely rise from this stronger and more determined.”
In the deepest, darkest hour, when everyone else was pointing fingers away, Coach Strand knew his team was still culpable for the loss. It is a painful teaching moment every good coach has had to deliver. He wasn’t popular at that moment and maybe still isn’t, but the truth is sometimes the most difficult thing to hear. My daughters may feel the same way about me when they read this. The message isn’t that you didn’t work hard enough, or that you weren’t prepared, in athletics sometimes things just don’t go your way and there is no good explanation. Life, we all find out, is often the same.
Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people and we have no say in either.
That no goal call is an easy target for our frustration and disappointment. We like targets, we like culprits, we need somebody to blame. It is how we cope and sometimes how we temporarily avoid the truth. None of that makes it any less painful. In these situations we tend to assume we know the alternate outcome. The truth is the Saints were not guaranteed a victory had the penalty been called and the Blugolds were not guaranteed a win if the goal had stood, but I think in both cases we liked their chances.
The athletic experience takes us to the depths of despair and heights of jubilation. Few things in life offer such a gamut of emotions and potential lifeboat of lessons. Saturday was a brutal life lesson and for the seven seniors I could not feel any worse. Their run to the post-season, winning twelve of their final thirteen games, clearly demonstrated the competitive drive of a championship caliber team. They truly deserved a better fate.
Less than twenty-four hours after the loss, my daughters, now left with one more chance as seniors, proved Strand right. As we therapied our way through the pain, they asked if it would be ok to not work this summer so they could spend all their time training for next year. They had already begun planning to come back “stronger and more determined.”
Picking up the pieces of that shattered dream will require perseverance, today we call it grit, and it will ultimately lead to success. The question isn’t if the Blugolds will win a National Championship, the question is when.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org