There is no hurt like “we had a chance to win it all” hurt. The pain is a privilege.
This, of course, was not, “Tennessee fans think they have a chance to win it all, but…”. These baseball Vols were number one for months, consistently the best in a way only the Lady Vols can compare to in our own modern history. And whatever your list of most painful Lady Vol losses, they are at least somewhat cushioned by the eight times we didn’t lose.
I’m unqualified to speak on what’s atop that list, and unqualified to speak in fullness of this baseball team. I didn’t watch every game or break down every scenario the way it goes for football and men’s basketball.
But this team made me want to. I bet I’m not alone on that one. And that can pay off nicely for the entire program.
When we do turn to those more familiar endeavors, to me there is no question when discussing which losses are most painful. In football, it’s 2001 in Atlanta, ranked second in the nation and a second half away from playing for a second BCS title in four years.
In basketball, the Vols have never climbed as high when postseason play began, and our losses as two-seeds always seemed easier to understand (even when the reason is, “Ryan Cline hit seven threes.”). To me, the most painful basketball loss is still 2000 North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Those Vols were only a four seed. But the bracket broke wide open, and Tennessee was the highest remaining seed in the region entering the Sweet 16.
There will always be a part of my brain that clings to a 17-7 lead over LSU in the second quarter. There will always be a part that’s up seven with 4:30 to play against North Carolina. And we may indeed find ourselves drawn back to a 3-1 lead on Notre Dame with two outs in the Top of the 7th.
There is no hurt like having a team that can win it all lose a game with a chance to win. The price of courting the mountaintop is the distance you can fall.
And yet, you wouldn’t ask to be anywhere else. For many years, we haven’t even had the option.
Every season tells a story, and I believe you can find something meaningful in all of them. Sometimes it’s your basketball team scratching and clawing to make the NIT (see also: Hamer, Steve). Sometimes it’s a football team leaping back toward relevance much faster than you thought they would.
You hope, of course, that all that meaning is pointed toward the mountaintop. And when you can see it from there – really, truly see it, almost close enough to touch – a fall is going to hurt, like nothing else.
But we’ll climb again.
To what end, we never know for sure. Twenty-one years later, football is yet to come closer to the mountaintop than that night in Atlanta. But from that North Carolina loss in basketball, our best days were ahead of us and not behind.
I’m really grateful to this baseball team, in joining with last year’s to establish an entirely new rhythm for our entire fanbase. What used to be an eight month football offseason has blossomed into championship-caliber programs in basketball and baseball, ground their counterparts on the women’s side have already broken. Now, there are present-tense reasons to invest in Tennessee in almost every month of the year.
This one ended a week too soon. But they established a presence that can carry these spring and summer weeks for years to come.