Monday, March 30, 2009

Vinko Bogataj And Princeton Athletics

For those older than, say, 40, much of your early television sports viewing was done by watching ABC's Wide World of Sports. For those who never heard of it, Wide World of Sports was a pre-ESPN, pre-24 hours of every sport on tv show that focused on a few different events per weekend, ranging from auto racing to gymnastics to hurling in Ireland to cliff diving in Mexico to anything from anywhere. It was a fast-paced format that showed a few events per show and was enormously popular through the 1960s and ’70s into the mid-’80s. Though it actually ran until the mid-’90s, it wasn't the same after cable came along.

The show began with some video clips over Jim McKay's narration, which is seared into the memory of anyone who ever heard it: "Spanning the globe, to bring you the constant variety of sports. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC's Wide World of Sports."

The highlight for "the thrill of victory changed often through the years." The highlight for "the agony of defeat" never did. It was always the shot of the ski jumper who fell off the ramp before taking off and smashed end over end underneath it.

The jumper, Vinko Bogataj, was never identified and became an anonymous symbol of "the agony of defeat" for years. Were this today, his highlight would have never been shown if it weren't an ESPN/ABC event or, if it was, then it would have been shown over and over on SportsCenter and on ESPNEWS while hip anchors tried to coin even hipper phrases while talking about it. The event would have been "broken down" on the Sports Reporters, with an ensuing shouting match between panelists over whether he had made it look worse than it was and whether or not it was worse than a crash in another event and ultimately to how Derek Jeter never would have fallen in the same situation. A few weeks later, ol' Vinko would have won an ESPY and would have appeared at the show with Emily Osment or someone from High School Musical or some other Disney property.

Still, you have to love the ESPN empire, because it has taken us to a time where Princeton fans can watch NCAA hockey pretty much anywhere in the country, as was the case Friday night (this doesn't even count watching Princeton women's water polo, which was televised Saturday morning and caused the start of the Syracuse-Loyola men's lacrosse game to be missed; Loyola fans would have prefered missing the end of that one).

And for Princeton, Friday's night hockey game against Minnesota-Deluth certainly qualifies as "the agony of defeat." The details of the game are by now painfully familiar to Tiger fans. For a look at what happened during postgame drug testing, check out the Ultimate Sports Insider.

TigerBlog was asked Saturday if that was the all-time "agony of defeat" for Princeton athetics. It's definitely way up there, was the response, but it might not have been the most "agonizing" in the last five weeks. Certainly the men's squash loss to Trinity in the national final (also by the same 5-4 score, ironically enough, as the hockey game) was equally as painful.

Agonizing losses have to measured not only in the event itself but also in what slipped away. It would have been hard for Princeton, like it was for UM-D, to turn around and beat a very good Miami team the next night, but the chance for the Frozen Four was there. For men's squash, the opportunity to win a national title was coupled with the chance end your biggest rival's 200-match winning streak.

For TigerBlog, the gold standard of crushing losses has always been the 1998 NCAA men's basketball second-round loss to Michigan State. That game stung because of how it got away from Princeton and because a Sweet 16 trip would have put an even greater exclamation point on that epic season.

The 2002 NCAA men's lacrosse championship game hurt as well, but it is softened by six other wins, including one the year before, and the knowledge that Syracuse was probably the better team during all three of those consecutive years (2000-02) that the teams played in the championship game and that Princeton was fortunate to get the one it did (2001).

Football games against Yale in 1995 (ended Princeton's perfect season bid) and 2005 (cost Princeton a share of Ivy title) don't sting as much since Princeton did win the 1995 title anyway and used to the ’05 Yale loss as huge motivation to win the ’06 championship.

Even the 1989 loss to Georgetown in the NCAA tournament did have the consolation prize of being one of the great games in the history of the sport.

On the women's side, maybe the 1998 field hockey loss to Old Dominion in the NCAA final, by a 3-2 score (not 5-4 at least) is the toughest.

TigerBlog could go back in history to many events that fit the "agony of defeat" category. Still, it does stand out that is that Princeton athletic history has way more great moments than crushing moments. Being able to handle the crushing moments is part of the deal when you play and succeed at the top levels. If Princeton didn't have so many great teams through the years, those teams wouldn't be in position to compete for high-intensity championships.

The "thrill of victory" clip on Wide World of Sports that TigerBlog remembers most is the one of the Kirkland, Wash., Little League team after it won the 1982 Little League World Series over the previously unbeatable Taiwanese (were they really 12?).

In other words, Princeton athletics has had way more Cody Webster moments than Vinko Bogataj moments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This post about the most heart-breaking Princeton losses is unique for an article written by an OAC – any college’s OAC -- as, naturally, most OAC writers want to focus on good news, however little there may be. It speaks to the abundance of good news at Princeton that you can address the opposite side of the coin.

I agree with your criteria that defining a heart-breaking loss must consider the magnitude of what was lost. But I add that it should also include whether we -- that is, Princeton -- made some sort of mistake, especially a mental error, to incur the defeat. Those are the avoidable losses, the ones that WE let get away. In my mind, the three most heart-breaking losses of all time are:

(1) Brad Dumont’s decision to shoot at the Syracuse goal from behind his back, with about 2 minutes remaining in the 2002 national championship game. To be fair to him, it was a split-second decision after receiving a perfect pass from behind the net. But he had plenty of room in front of him simply to shovel the ball forward past the goalie. A score by Dumont would have tied the game but he missed wide, badly. As it turned out, the Tigers never got another good opportunity and lost by that one goal.

More broadly, this was the first NCAA game since 1991 that we COULD have won that we did not. After a ten-year streak of one-goal victories and clutch come-from-behind wins, the moment the ball left Dumont’s stick is the moment the inexplicable “magic” of Princeton lacrosse in the 1990’s disappeared. Sadly, it has yet to reappear though, of course, we’re off to a great start this year.

(2) Jay McCarein’s decision to catch and thus intercept a fourth-down “Hail Mary” pass thrown by Yale with less than two minutes to play in the 2005 game. Had McCareins realized that Princeton would be much better off with him simply knocking the pass away, the Tigers would have been set up past midfield with three downs to run time off the clock before possibly punting deep into Yale territory.

Instead, McCareins caught the ball, forcing Princeton to start a drive from the shadow of its goal line. A first down or two still would have won the game, but the nightmare scenario of two successive interceptions led to Yale scoring twice in the waning seconds for an inexplicable win and costing the Tigers a share of the 2005 Ivy championship.

(3) Zane Kalemba’s decision to drop the puck from his glove near his goal with about five seconds left in the game against Minnesota-Duluth. Like the two above, this involved a split-second decision, but clearly an instinctive reaction to fling the puck into the corner would have likely ended the game with a victory. Even hanging onto the puck would have probably resulted in a face-off in front of Kalemba with two or three seconds left on the clock, also likely a winning scenario.