Monday, May 17, 2010

Hard To Stomach

Joe Pesci won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing Tommy in "Goodfellas." Maybe one day over the summer, TigerBlog can give you his 100 favorite moments from the movie.

When he came up on stage to receive his award, Pesci delivered a five-word acceptance speech. TigerBlog has always remembered it as "this is my great honor," though a quick search suggests it was "this is my great privilege."

Either way, the same search confirms that it was the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history.

TigerBlog has heard hundreds of coaches and athletes say thousands and thousands of words, maybe even millions of words, and yet he rarely has heard a situation summed up as concisely and perfectly in about the number of words that Pesci used as he did yesterday afternoon after Princeton's 8-5 loss to Notre Dame in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, when Tiger head coach Chris Bates sighed and said this:

"The finality is hard to stomach."

That's how it works in the NCAA tournament, in any team sport. One and done, and it's rarely compassionate about it.

And so, the quarterfinals come to Powers Field at Princeton Stadium this Saturday, with Maryland against Notre Dame and North Carolina against Duke. This is the fourth time that Princeton Stadium has hosted the quarterfinals, and Princeton has not reached them in any of those years; in the last 21 years, Princeton is 16 for 17 in reaching the quarterfinals in years that Princeton Stadium has not hosted.

In Princeton's case this year, the draw wasn't all that kind. Notre Dame, while coming in merely 7-6 on the year, was once ranked as high as second nationally and was clearly a team with talent.

Its giant goalie, 6-5, 255-pound Scott Rodgers, was healthy after a hamstring problem all year, and longstick midfielder Andrew Irving, eight inches smaller than Rodgers, was all over the field. Midfielder David Earl had a five-goal afternoon, and Princeton was unable to make its usual fourth-quarter comeback.

And so the first year for Bates ends at 11-5, with a share of the Ivy League championship and the championship of the first-ever Ivy League tournament.

Bates was still being asked yesterday about taking over for Bill Tierney, almost an entire year after being hired and at the conclusion of his first season. Bates chuckled at the question and then said that he's looking forward to not being asked about it again.

The transition from Tierney to Bates has been so smooth that TB didn't really think much about the fact that a year ago at this time, Tierney was still the Princeton coach. In fact, a bigger issue for Princeton this year was the graduation of eight seniors from 2009, all of whom were big contributors for at least three years. Tierney or Bates, that was going to make 2010 a transitional season anyway.

In fact, with the coaching change, the loss of the 2009 seniors and the reliance on freshmen and sophomores basically everywhere, it was a pretty good year for Princeton.

The reality of Princeton lacrosse is that the program is positioned fairly well right now. For starters, everyone long ago adjusted to the new coaching staff. For another, Princeton will return an army of players for next year and beyond, including all seven of its All-Ivy picks, including four first-team All-Ivy players.

It's always tough for the seniors when the senior snaps shut like that, and TB spent some of the game watching the seniors on each team, knowing that it would over for half of them.

As for the rest of the NCAA tournament, the biggest story of course was Army's two-overtime win over two-time defending champion Syracuse. The biggest cheers you heard when Army scored might have come from Ithaca, as Cornell now avoids its nemesis Syracuse in the quarterfinals in favor of Army, a team the Red has beaten five years in a row (though the last three have been by one goal each, including overtime earlier this year).

The last three weekends for Princeton and Cornell show how wildly emotions swing in college athletics. Back on May 1 (in 90 degree weather), Cornell defeated Princeton 10-9 to force the tie for the Ivy title. Then, eight days later, it was Princeton who was flying high after defeating Cornell in the Ivy final. Now, one week after that, Princeton is done with its season, while Cornell is the favorite in its quarterfinal game.

After the Princeton game, TB was at the reception the parents had for the players. Watching Bates speak and interact, it's obvious that it's his show now.

He spoke in the postgame interview about doing it his way at Princeton, and it's clear that that is the case. He's not Tierney, he's not trying to be, and he doesn't need to be. He's doing pretty well being Chris Bates.

The other thing that was obvious was that he and the rest of those who will be back next year can't wait to get started again. It's an amazing situation, coming off four months of practicing and playing and yet wanting to start over immediately.

It's what comes from having it all there and then over in a flash, with no way to get it back.

That can be very hard to stomach.

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