I’ve never played for a national championship. When I was a child, I jumped rope on a team en route to a team-wide national championship, but I didn’t have much of an effect on that outcome. I was mainly along for the ride, there to enjoy Disney World and cheer on my more-skilled teammates.
I’ve never played for a national title, so I have no words to express what that must feel like. I remember the pregame nerves in low-level high school football; I couldn’t imagine how it feels to take the field with a shot at a ring. To step out under those lights, knowing that you are one of two teams in the absolute last contest of the season. To know that only a matter of minutes separate you from the end goal of a season, the thing that so many kids dream of in the back yards and playgrounds across the country. To know, also, in the deep shadows in the back of your mind, that you may also be drawing ever nearer to some of the deepest despair an athlete can experience.
Ten minutes is such a short amount of time. Ten minutes is what I ask for when I want to watch one more half-hour episode of a TV show before taking the trash out. Ten more minutes is the occasional lie I tell my alarm clock on a workday morning. Ten minutes is how far away you are from the restaurant where forgot you were supposed to meet your friend, even if you’re still in the middle of getting dressed. It’s a blink of an eye, not even a quarter of an hour; barely enough time to read this blog post.
It’s amazing, then, how much things can change in such a short amount of time. I’ll try not to stir up the painful memories of exactly what happened in Cary on Monday night, only say that the Tar Heels entered the 81st minute of a 90-minute match with a 2-0 lead, a game well in hand by any estimation, only to find themselves heading to extra time with a score of 2-2. This tie would soon broken like Tar Heel hearts across the country, as the ball found the back of the net behind Heels keeper Emmie Allen after a great save on a first shot attempt rebounded out to a streaking Bruin who barely squeaked the game-winner between the near post and Allen’s outstretched arms.
I’ve never lost a national championship, either, but I’d imagine that hurts in a very particular way. The temperature dropped below freezing on Monday night, but I don’t think the cold would have been enough to numb the hurt that results from being so close. I’d bet the cold that settles over you as you watch the other team celebrating is an entirely different beast, one that doesn’t care about hats, scarves, gloves, or even the season. I watched this cold front blow in over the men’s basketball team in early April of 2016, and that was spring (and indoors).
It’s a cold thing, and something that always whispers in the back of my mind whenever I watch the Heels win a big game; for every Tar Heel celebrating, there is a player or fan of the other team that is agonizing over what could have been. The ever-changing nature of college sports lends itself to this agony and ecstacy; it’s not like pro leagues, where ownership can spend to keep a core together and build over seasons. We only get one season to watch any given Carolina team. Recent history aside, we’ve been lucky to be on the winning side of that particular coin flip more often than not.
The good thing about the cold, though, is that it isn’t forever. Just as these winter winds will eventually give way to the breath of new life that comes with spring, the chill of being a step away from another national title will fade into hope for the coming season.
It’s a good day to be a Tar Heel, as always—regardless of the weather. I’m so proud of the UNC Women’s Soccer team, and I’m positive I’m not the only one basking in that warmth.