Friday, February 26, 2016

Of serenity now, life at the front of the pack and tortured track analogies

This was totally me. Minus the smoking, and the hurdling, and the winning.

Back in my younger, svelter days, I ran high school track and cross country. I would like to tell you that it was because I was a natural, and that all the cool kids were doing it, and that it was a great way to meet girls.

But the truth is that while I came from a running family—my Dad ran several marathons and my sister was a terrific sprinter—my talent, such as it were, made me the Jeb Bush of the clan. All the cool kids were playing basketball or baseball, which I would have done too, were I good enough to play basketball or baseball at the varsity level. And girls weren’t turning out in droves for boring after school cross country or track meets to swoon at the guy finishing in the middle of the pack (he says, hoping none of his ex-teammates read this)

Still, I liked track and cross country. I enjoyed the camaraderie of being on a team. You wouldn’t believe how much trouble cross country runners could get into (no, really, you probably wouldn’t). It kept me in really good shape—I was proof that a mediocre runner can still outrun any non-runner in the high school—while also keeping me off the mean streets of Torrington (a funny sentence then, not so funny now, thanks death of suburbia).

Another thing I liked about track was the routine. Whether track or cross country, every meet was about repetition. I either ran around the track four times or eight times (I might have been a lot better at track had my coach listened to me about my real skills being in the 400 and 800 meters, but that’s a repressed memory to fully revisit when Molly begins running track), or took two turns around a course.

There were landmarks that identified how far along I was. At our home track, that was the gym at the first turn, the bleachers on the first straightaway, the shot put/discus pit at the second turn and the sight of race officials and cheering fans at the end of the second straightaway. If I didn’t like where I was at a certain checkpoint, of if I wasn’t where I expected I’d be, there were more laps to run and more opportunities to make up ground.

I thought of my track days earlier this month, not when I glanced at my ever-expanding waistline but when I recalled my reactions after the Flying Dutchmen basketball team suffered back-to-back losses to UNC Wilmington and James Madison in which it blew leads of 20 points and 14 points, respectively. 

Those losses felt like unrecoverable opportunities lost—especially the home loss to Wilmington, when Hofstra played for first place at home after Feb. 1 for the first time in the #CAAHoops era. The marketing department worked really hard trying to woo the ever-elitist student body and Nassau County sports fan to that game, and another agonizing loss seemed as if it would provide said students and fans all the excuses they needed to not show up the rest of the season.

The losses dropped the Dutchmen two games behind UNC Wilmington with six to play, and it honestly felt as if Hofstra was going to have to fight just to stay out of the outbracket games the first day of the CAA Tournament. My Tweets echoed this sentiment, and then some, to the point where I was bordering on nihilistic.

At some point, I realized how foolish I sounded, and I began pondering the myopia of fandom. A friend pointed out that it was hard, in an amusing way, to juxtapose my rants about a second-place team with the guy who used to annually come up with reasons why a low-seeded Hofstra squad could win a tournament in which the chalk almost always holds.

He was right, of course, but I suppose it’s unavoidable that heightened expectations yield a more visceral response. There’s no agony involved in building up expectations for a middle-of-the-pack team. But when the season begins with NCAA Tournament expectations? Every hiccup—and let’s be honest, those back-to-back blown leads against UNC Wilmington and James Madison WERE awfully big hiccups—is evidence things are going to go horribly wrong, as they always do for Hofstra fans. 

But it’s not really fair to expect players and coaches who are new to Hofstra to inherit our old wounds. Especially when they don’t even play or coach the sport that scarred us (if you didn’t think of the Flying Dutchmen lacrosse team and the 2006 NCAA Tournament quarterfinal game at some point during the UNC Wilmington-James Madison gauntlet, you’re either a damn liar, a better person than me or quite possibly both).

I also took a longer view of things after the consecutive losses, and realized what’s happened in three years. Hofstra has gone from being lapped in the CAA—in an embarrassing fashion that had nothing to do with the 14 league losses suffered in 2012-13—to, at the very least, helping set the pace in a damn good race. We needed to remember that. *I* needed to remember that.

So, for at least the third time this season, I decided to try and employ a calmer approach. And what do you know, that made last night—when the Dutchmen exacted some revenge by coming back from an 18-point first half deficit to stun UNC Wilmington, 70-69—even more enjoyable. There were no leaping off the ledge Tweets to justify, no coming back from declaring I’m done with this season.

Just two 40-something Hofstra grads, and their three-year-old daughter, watching in disbelief as Juan’ya Green went full-bore Charles Jenkins/Loren Stokes by scoring 15 points in the final 5:57 and ending the game on an 8-0 run before UNC Wilmington missed three open shots in the final five seconds.

The Dutchmen led the game for 49 seconds AND WON. It’s hard to compute that, when you’ve been through extended comebacks that fizzled when a reliable free throw shooter bricked two at the line and ****ing Frantz Massenat’s half-courter.

(True story: Molly began the rally with about three minutes left by standing on the couch and yelling “GO HOFSTRA! YOU CAN DO THIS!” She can be rented out for sporting events in exchange for a full scholarship beginning in the fall of 2030)

The Dutchmen’s fifth straight win put them in a tie for first place with UNC Wilmington and set up another first-time-ever proposition tomorrow: A mere 23 days after they hosted the program’s first post-Feb. 1 game with first-place CAA implications, the Dutchmen can clinch a regular season crown at home. (Basically, as long as Hofstra wins, it’s the no. 1 seed, but for the full rundown of potential tiebreaker weirdness, read this)

After all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, the Dutchmen made up the ground they lost earlier this month, got back to where they were expected to be during the season’s final straightaway and received another chance to get the community to actually show up for a game. 

None of this new-found serenity erases my worries over next weekend in Baltimore—or even tomorrow in Hempstead, where a tired team will be hosting a Charleston squad that won the first matchup of the season in the shadow of the future home of the CAA Tournament (snort).

Quite frankly, while I don’t doubt the Dutchmen have the best starting five in the league, I’m not sure they can win three games in three days, especially in this Kardiac Kids fashion. Of the last five wins, two were won when the opponent missed a game-winning shot at the buzzer, two others were within one possession in the final minute and the other involved Hofstra blowing a double-digit lead against Delaware.

To win the title—and drag out the track analogy one more time—the Dutchmen will have to win the final event, the 4x400 relay, with four (OK, five) guys who have already competed in the maximum amount of events. There’s a chance we’re sitting here 10 days from now, agonizing again over yet another terrible thing that has happened to us. #Hyperbole

But let’s not worry about what might happen. Let’s enjoy what’s happening, and the view from the front of the pack at the end of a race, instead of the back.

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