Getting to the top is hard. Staying on top is just as hard.
Program building is not easy.
Both of Northwestern’s revenue sports are at something of a crossroads. The Wildcats men’s basketball and football programs have reached a level of consistency unprecedented in the school’s history. Getting to four straight bowl games and four straight NITs seem like modest accomplishments (and, in the long run, yes they are), but they are important steps forward for a school that is still fights the historical shadows of being seen as “stuck in the dark ages” and a “perennial loser.”
We know these things are not true. We see the improvement every year and even every game. The Wildcats are not perennial losers. They can make every game competitive and keep us on the edge of our seats. Blowouts are fewer and far between. They are rare occasions.
This is an important step. As was mentioned on the broadcast during Northwestern’s NIT win over Akron, if you would have told Northwestern fans four years ago that we would have three straight 20-win seasons and four-straight NIT appearances, they would have been ecstatic.
Expectations change and evolve, as they should. It is no longer enough to reach a bowl game or reach the NIT. Everyone wants more — fans, administration, the teams themselves — and taking that next step is proving to be the difficult task ahead of Northwestern.
With so many contributing seniors graduating from the football team and with the basketball team losing all-time leading scorer John Shurna, both football and basketball seem certain to take a step back. That is not what we all want to hear (and not what the teams want to hear either). The 2012-13 season will be critical for both football and basketball in maintaining the successes that they have built in the last four years.
These things go in cycles though, and building a program is as much about managing the valleys as it is about the journey to the peaks.
Northwestern softball has seen that journey and is making the long climb back toward the top.
You may recall back in 2006 and 2007, the softball team was on top of the world. The Wildcats stunned many by breaking through into the Women’s College World Series and into the national championship series against Arizona. Northwestern had arrived behind a balanced lineup that featured sluggers like Garland Cooper and Tammy Williams and incredibly strong pitching from Courtnay Foster and Eileen Canney.
This was a team that was a pure juggernaut. Multiple home run threats with great players in the lineup to fill in the gaps with small ball and slap hitting. And also two dominant pitchers (not just one as many teams had).
Northwestern was in the top 10 to start the season after that second Women’s College World Series appearance and it seemed like the program was going to be elite for a long time to come.
Of course, that is not how these things work. In any sport, if a few recruits do not pan out or you lose a game at the wrong time or even if you have the wrong mix of players on the roster, things can go south very quickly.
To some extent this is what happened with the softball team. The power was still there, constantly being replaced when Cooper graduated and then Williams graduated with Michelle Batts and then Adrienne Monka (a senior on this year’s team). But that extra little spark that made the teams of 2006-08 so special. Pitching certainly had a lot to do with it. Lauren Delaney was not as dominant as her former bullpen mate in Canney and NU’s highly touted recruits struggled to deliver.
That was enough to send Northwestern from four straight Super Regional appearances in the NCAA Softball Tournament to out in the Regional round to out of the NCAA Softball Tournament the last two years.
The Wildcats those two years and this year were certainly on the bubble. This team is not far from returning to the Tournament. And maybe the team is a shut-down pitcher away from thinking about returning to the Super Regional run. In all likelihood, the return to glory for the Wildcats will be just as surprising as that first run to the Super Regionals was in 2005 and the run to the Women’s College World Series was in 2006.
I was in Clearwater this weekend to watch some Northwestern softball (sorry, it is my non-rev addiction with Northwestern sports, if you couldn’t tell yet). I understood this was a team and a program that was struggling just a little bit. The Wildcats did not have the star power from the days I covered the team — during the second Women’s College World Series run in 2007. But this, to me, was still a team with a ton of talent, if it could find the momentum.
The Wildcats always play a tough schedule and the schedule this year has been unusually difficult for the Wildcats as they have faced no fewer than two ranked opponents in any weekend tournament this season. The task this year seems to be tougher than most considering Northwestern is playing mostly freshmen and sophomores — Monka is the only senior in the lineup, and she is playing hurt.
This is a program trying to rediscover its identity a bit. The sluggers are no longer there and the team really has to come together and string hits and slaps and bunts together to advance runners and score.
Despite two losses, a 1-0 defeat to the ranked Seminoles and a 6-2 loss to the unranked Mocs of Chattanooga, I came away confident that Northwestern softball will rise again. The pieces are all there.
Monka is an imposing force in the lineup that had pitchers dancing around her making sure they did not give her anything to make contact with. The question has been pitching and Northwestern may have found someone to dominate in the circle.
Junior Meghan Lamberth was brilliant in a 1-0 loss to Florida State on Saturday. She pitched a four-hitter and gave up only that one run. After struggling through much of the early part of her career, she finally had a dominant presence in the pitcher’s circle. It was impressive to watch. The only problem was that there was no run-support. The Cats had just two hits and Lamberth, in the hard luck season that it has been for her, fell to 3-6.
Even in those two defeats, you could see the ruminations of the re-ascendance coming.
A lot of you probably are not as obsessed with Northwestern softball as I am. So what does this all mean and how does this relate to basketball and football’s future plight?
Programs are cyclical. You can be at the top one day and then a bad recruiting class or a bad season can send you tumbling down trying to get back to the top. Look at how long a historically successful program like Indiana took to recover from the Kelvin Sampson fiasco. This run to the Sweet Sixteen was a long time coming for Tom Crean and the Hoosiers. It was a long road to the depths and then back to the national forefront. Indiana seems to be on solid footing.
There were dark times. Just like there might be dark times ahead for Northwestern’s football and men’s basketball. But good management, perseverance and a little faith certainly got them through. Now Crean and the Hoosiers are reaping the rewards.
There are big challenges ahead for Northwestern on the football field, the basketball court and on the softball diamond. The question for these growing programs is how will they respond to them. This is not to say change may not be needed — whether on the assistant level or at the top. Those are debates to be dealt with in more detail elsewhere.
The long-range answer though might be in taking a step back, dealing with adversity and coming back stronger.
Coming up in a bit…
As you likely read, Tavaras Hardy interviewed for the SIU head coaching job. LTP will take a peak at the importance of Tavaras as it relates to the NU hoops program as the soap opera continues…