— Antoine De Saint-Exupery
French Writer (1900-1944)
Sports opinions are best left on the sports pages or within the private whispers of water cooler gab, but sometimes we aging news-side fuddy-duddies must empty our hearts.
Especially upon knowing hearts have been broken.
It happened Monday night when the vast legion of Lady Vols followers watched helplessly as our lasses in orange and blue fell to a better prepared bunch of gals from Notre Dame. It was a painful and lopsided contest that sent the Lady Irish to the basketball promised land called the Final Four while our girls dejectedly returned to their Knoxville campus asking the inevitable question, “What if?”
It’s a legitimate query, yet one born more from frustration and regret than from reality.
Victory is sweet.
Defeat is hindsight.
What if we had done this?
What if they had done that?
It doesn’t matter. It happened.
Fingers can be pointed in a hundred directions.
Coach Pat Summitt didn’t have her ladies focused.
Meighan Simmons lost her composure.
Shekinna Stricklen didn’t step up as leaders are supposed to do.
Glory Johnson could have jumped a little higher.
Angie Bjorklund lost confidence in her shot.
Kelley Cain was sucker-punched by her own emotion.
The defense lost its foot speed.
The post players lacked grit.
Too many turnovers.
Then again, maybe the Lady Irish were just due. They were 0-20 lifetime against these dedicated athletes in orange. Maybe their time had come. Perhaps the stage was set.
It wasn’t fate.
It was just inevitable.
Defeat carries no shame.
Losing tarnishes no image.
These Lady Vols bear no badge of dishonor.
They are the same young stars their followers have adored all season and who will be adored again in years to come.
The best lessons in life are often those most bitter. It is this premise on which Coach Summitt is likely hanging her hat for next season. She returns every player save two. Surely she hopes those returning for another year will bring with them long memories of that embarrassing night in Dayton.
Make no mistake. These ladies of the hardwood will be back. A little older. A lot wiser. Their fans will be waiting, my wife and I included. Next season we will again trek north along Interstate 75 to cheer for these likable youngsters a couple of times in the regular season while watching from afar on the flat-screen the rest of the way. Just as we have done in years past. As we will do in seasons ahead.
One loss changes nothing.
One disappointment can’t redefine loyalty.
One setback won’t undo years of success.
One loss is nothing more than just ... one loss.
Sure, it hurts now.
It’s a sting in the eye and a welt on the brow.
Defeat came at the worst possible time.
Because we the fans wanted so much.
But that’s us.
What of the players? They’ve run the court. They’ve endured those Summitt practices. They’ve made the sacrifices that student athletes make. They’ve lived up to the hype even when fickle sports reporters and impatient fans demanded more.
Theirs are the hearts that broke Monday night.
Theirs was the pain that we can never feel.
Theirs was the pride that took it on the chin.
Theirs are the tears that truly burn.
But they remain who we have known from the beginning.
The Lady Vols.
Daughters of proud moms and dads lost in a sea of orange.
Students who study, excel and graduate on time.
Spirited ladies of honor filled with a passion for the game.
Heroines in the tiny hearts of little girls who follow their every step.
And keepers of a faith that victory dwells deep within the hearts of all who dare to dream.