Sports are weird. They are simultaneously maddeningly entertaining, and vastly unfair. Other than sports, I can’t think of anything that would bring various sets of people from Maine, suburban Chicago, and Stillwater, Oklahoma to Athens, Georgia in mid-May. Yet there they all were this past weekend, playing NCAA Tournament softball on three consecutive days at Jack Turner Stadium in Athens Georgia.
On Saturday night, sport did what it does best. As Northwestern and Oklahoma State battled in an elimination game, sport played with my emotions, giving me hope one minute, dread the next, and a massive bundle of nervousness throughout. Technically, when we’re in the press box calling a game, we’re supposed to keep our emotions in check. That wasn’t me on Saturday night. I fist-pumped every Northwestern run, and gave the table a hard slap as Oklahoma State scored the eventual winning run in the top of the ninth inning.
The crazy thing is, coming into Wednesday, I didn’t really know softball.
Yet, somehow, in the span of 3 days, I went from barely knowing the names of the members of Northwestern’s softball team, to rooting for them to win harder than I’ve ever rooted for a team I’m broadcasting. Something about the energy in the stadium, and the energy around the team made me care. That game on Saturday night became massive to me as a fan, because of how the three days prior to it had gone.
Traveling with the team as a radio broadcaster is a unique experience. On one hand, you feel as though you’re a part of the team as you eat team meals, ride the team bus, and stay in the team hotel. But you’re also an outsider, especially as a student broadcaster. You don’t go on every trip, and oftentimes you’re largely left alone. After all, who wants to talk to the radio guys who might re-tell part of your conversation and embarrass you on the air?
This trip, though, was different. From the second my broadcast partner, Will Greer, and I stepped into the bus to the airport Wednesday, the entire team (coaches, players, managers, and everyone in between) went above and beyond to make us feel welcome. We weren’t just “the radio guys.” We were asked how we were doing, and how the broadcasts went. The players’ families told us how thankful they were for our calls, and we told them how much we appreciated it.
That’s what made watching the ninth inning so tough. Andrea Filler, who played her heart out over her career, both at Boston College and Northwestern, didn’t deserve to have the final fielding opportunity of her career be a ball that twisted away from her on a funny hop. Amy Letourneau, who gutted through five seasons for Northwestern, and pitched 15 incredible innings over the two days working out of numerous jams, didn’t deserve to lose after the heart and tenacity she showed. Down the list you can go. No Northwestern player on that field Saturday night, senior or otherwise, deserved to have their season ended in that gut-wrenching fashion.
But it did.
The careers of Letourneau and Filler are over. They won’t play for Northwestern again, and it’s truly a shame, because they are not just two incredible athletes, but two incredible people, and it felt like they were under-appreciated during their time in Evanston.
The funny thing about sports though, is that even after the gut-wrenching losses like Saturday night, there are always chances to bounce back. Yes, the seniors are gone, many of whom were pillars of this team, and each and every one of them will be missed. Northwestern softball won’t be the same without them. However, despite those losses, Northwestern softball lives on. Kate and Caryl Drohan will continue to work their magic in the dugout. Sabrina Rabin and Morgan Nelson will anchor a team that will come back next season hungrier than ever.
With sports, even though Saturday night in Athens felt like the end of a story, it could just as easily be the beginning of another. Because you always get another chance. Except when you don’t. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.