Saturday, May 31, 2008

My new favorite Wildcat

Twenty years ago Sean Elliot led the University of Arizona to the NCAA basketball Final Four. For some reason that I've never really figured out, a 12-year-old kid living in Amherst, NY adopted the Tucson school as his favorite. The UofA lost its first game in the Final Four, but a fan was born. When I eventually enrolled at UofA I half-joked the Sean Elliot was the reason I attended school 2,000 miles away from home in a scorching hot desert.

Through the years, the UofA basketball team has been the team that I've lived and died with the most. While I was at college I suffered the ignominy of a first round upset (during a time when we were the de rigeur pick to be the fave that went down early). But that was obliterated on the scale by being courtside for a national championship.

I grew up a Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres fan. I've sufferend through too many bad sports jokes, but my college sports life (one college basketball national championship, three softball titles, a damn good women's volleyball team, one great football season) redeemed that.

So this yeah when the Wildcat basketball program exploded/imploded (as the legendary coach Lute Olson took a leave of absence, endured a public divorce, showed himself to be arrogant during a holier-than-thou press conference, fired/lost his entire assitant coaching staff, suffered the early departures of his best players) my ultimate sports high, that one shining moment I could always point to and say "I was there. I was part of that," had dimmed.

But I realized that on Thursday night things had a chance to turn courtesy of the UofA softball team. In the hyper-competitive world of college basketball, no one is really a dynasty, but the UofA softball Wildcats are. And unlike in pro sports or even in major college sports like football, it's not because of astronomical money spent on players' salaries or facilities and coaches' salaries. So I never felt dirty rooting for the goliath. I think also because every interview I'd ever seen with coach Mike Candrea and more importantly the women who played on the team, I always felt proud that they were Wildcats. Yeah, it's corny, but I think that kind of camaraderie is part of the best thing about college and sports.

Last year, I bragged in my blog about pitcher Taryne Mowatt who at 5-6 threw more than 1,000 pitches in all eight games to win the program's 8th national title. I never felt prouder to be a Wildcat. She wasn't in this for longterm professional glory and riches. She wasn't in it for a shoe contract. She was in it for at least to some degree the same reason we play sports as children, for joy, teammates, competition and excellence.

Well earlier today when the Wildcats lost to Alabama finishing the WCWS 0-2 and going home really early, I don't think I ever felt so sad as a Wildcat. To me Mowatt embodied the best parts of sports and seeing her so sad at the end was heartbreaking. Because this was it for her and the other seniors. Sure they might play for the national team some day or in the "pro" league, but it won't be anything close to the same. And as of now the national team won't have Olympics to play in, so this really was it. I hate seeing someone not end on the high note (even if they at least at one point has a high note). Brett Michaels sang that it's better to have lost and loved than never to have loved at all, but still ...

Taryne Mowatt is such a talent, but also an underdog (hell, even Candrea said that he wasn't sure about recruiting her) and I feel like she always repped the university at its pinnacle. Not having her on the field next year is gonna hurt. Amazingly, she's got something that Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott (two pithcers generaly considered better in the all-time rankings) don't have, a national championship (and also a Most Outstanding player in the tournament award). Hell, she's got two championships.

So to the Arizona Wildcats 2008 softball team, I raise a metaphorical glass. Good-bye Taryne Mowatt and Callista Balko and Adrienne Acton, we shall miss you.

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