In the sports that have produced the most recent success in Knoxville, it's been, as usual, a roller coaster year. And, as usual, while there are highs - the Lady Vols' 7th National Championship in women's basketball - and there are lows - the firing of longtime baseball coach Rod Delmonico after a preseason Top 20 team failed to make the NCAA Tournament (though not everyone would call Delmonico's departure a low) - over the past calendar year, three other beloved Tennessee teams have come to the edge of national success. And all three were denied in more heartbreaking fashion than normal:
- In early November, the Vols were ranked #8 and were 7-1 when #13 LSU came to Knoxville. The subsequent losses to Arkansas and Penn State may have made you forgetful, but on the first weekend of November, the Vols were widely thought to be in control of their own BCS at-large destiny, and still needed only one Florida loss to take the lead in the SEC East. And after Erik Ainge was injured on a called bootleg the week before at South Carolina, Jonathan Crompton got his first significant action against an attacking LSU defense. The Vols used three big plays to score all of their touchdowns, but lost the time of possession battle by 21 minutes (LSU ran more offensive plays than Tennessee to the tune of around 3 to 1), allowed two 4th down conversions on LSU's final drive, watched the referees miss a call where JaMarcus Russell fumbled on the same drive, and surrendered the losing touchdown with :09 to play. LSU 28 - Tennessee 24. In a game where every play counted, LSU made all the right ones at the end. This is in no way to say that beating LSU would've meant a better performance at Arkansas the following week, but the Vols were in control of their own fate for the BCS, and LSU snatched it away from them. This one hurt.
- In mid-March, we found something that hurt more. In the program's second trip to the Sweet 16, playing #1 Ohio State in a rematch of another heartbreaking game in January, the Vols raced to a 20 point first half lead behind the most incredible postseason shooting display I've ever seen. Fans at halftime were thinking about the Final Four. Then Ohio State came to life and the defense lapsed, the Buckeyes started scoring on almost every possession, and the 20 point lead was single digits in a heartbeat. Ohio State would eventually take the lead, and the Vols were game enough to take it to the final possession, when Greg Oden made a "with the first pick in the NBA Draft..." play, rejecting Ramar Smith's layup attempt and the hopes of Vol Nation in an 85-84 Ohio State victory. Tennessee shot 8 of 17 at the free throw line. You went from euphoric to depressed in twenty minutes. In control of their own fate for the Elite Eight, Ohio State snatched it away. This one really hurt.
- The Sweet 16 loss hurts more because it's big money men's college basketball. But if you take that part out of the equation, the softball losses over the past two nights are probably worse. Playing for the National Championship for the first time in the history of the program (and the SEC), behind the best pitcher in softball, undefeated and unscored on throughout the WCWS, up 1-0 in the best of three championship series against defending champ and softball goddess Arizona...you consistently put runners on base. You load the bases in the 5th inning on Tuesday and don't score. You leave runners on base in the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th as the game carries on. You get in multiple situations where all you need is a walk, wild pitch, hit batsman (batswoman?), single, error, or sacrifice fly to win the National Championship. And you just. Can't. Do it. To the point that it becomes a complex, both for the players and the fans watching. Arizona wins Tuesday night by inches on a missed tag at home plate. You tell yourself you're alright, there's always Game 3. But you know that karma isn't working for you now. And after leaving 14 on base on Tuesday, you leave 12 on base on Wednesday, and still score no runs. And in the blink of an eye in the fifth inning, the game, the season, the championship, and the career of Monica Abbott, are all over. No Tennessee team has come to the brink of a championship and been turned away so coldly. Ever.
Sometimes seasons end and you know you went as far as you could and could go no farther, that the teams that beat you were simply better, and you're still on the way up. Sometimes seasons end with abysmal performances that leave you kicking and cussing and calling for the coach's head. And there are lots of ways to lose a season-defining game. But for football, men's basketball, and softball, with everything on the line, the Vols were right there...and came up short. And it hurts.
All three programs will have an opportunity to be back. All three programs have losses, both general and specific (Robert Meachem, Dane Bradshaw, Monica Abbott) that must be addressed. And all three programs still had overall seasons that would be viewed as successful - the football team rebounded from a 5-6 2005 and showed they were still more than relevant, the basketball team made the Sweet 16 for the second time ever, and the softball team was in totally uncharted territory, one pitch away from the National Championship. The heartbreak of 2006-07 doesn't guarantee a return investment of success in 07-08. But the Vols, in all three sports - and really, as is the beauty of the athletic department these days, in every single sport they field, men and women - have an opportunity to compete for championships. That is and shall remain the bar. Teams jumps high in Knoxville. Pat Summitt's team cleared it, again, last year. Several others came close. But for the breadwinners for Phillip Fulmer and Bruce Pearl, and for the new darlings in softball, it's like getting all the way over the bar, and then nicking it with your pinky toe. Almost. So close.
The thing becomes now to let those close calls make you better. Vol Baksetball has already adopted "Remember the Alamo" as its mantra for 2007-08 - which is helpful, being that the 08 Final Four is in San Antonio. Vol Football knows they're always on dangerous ground in the SEC, in a conference that's good enough to eat you alive with a team that's still good enough to win it. And for softball, replacing Abbott will not be easy. But neither was replacing Manning. And the strength of the collective unit has a way of rising above. We'll be back. We're always right there. And each program is always in the moment and the chance of rising above, clearing the bar, and setting it higher. Such is life in Knoxville. And life is good.