Rise and Fall and Rise Again

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…

 

  • Jim

    “Programs are cyclical ?”

    Your assertion is probably correct. So, when we have programs, even at NU, that defy the odds, we should take note and try to learn from them.
    Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for WLAX. They lost the championship game in 2010 and lost two All Americans to graduation ( Spencer and Dowd ). If the 2010 team couldn’t bring home the fifth successive NCAA championship, the following year’s chances were even worse. The young dynasty was about to unravel .
    Even though a good recruiting class provided long term hope, a dismal weekend in the Spring left them with two back to back losses on the road to teams they wee expected to easily beat. This was a month before Conference and NCAA tournament play was to begin. In addition to their two losses, many of their other games lacked the dominance normally characteristic of this program. For the cynics waiting for Kelly Amonte Hiller’s dynasty to be revealed as a fluke,…the moment was at hand.
    Lets make a long story short and cut to the chase. A culture of winning and a tradition of pride had been built into this program that no one fully appreciated. It took hold of the season from that dismal weekend to the end of the season.. That spirit was almost palpable as you watched it take hold of this program. One of those storied sports turnarounds took place before our very eyes on Lakeside Field.. One by one, several hard fought gritty battles of one point victories became dominoes leading to a National Championship no one expected from this team.
    Winning cultures almost take on a force of their own in all human endeavors, especially in sports. Yes, “programs are cyclical.” Some less than others.

    • Jim

      correction… fifth line
      should be ” …couldn’t bring home the sixth successive championship…”

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      Very good points.

      I think one of the things that had me more confident about softball bouncing back is that I know Kate Drohan has established a program that expects excellence and winning no matter what. That might have been something I am overlooking in making the comparison between the two programs.

      It is important that the winning attitude starts at the top with the program the coach wants to establish. That helps navigate the valleys and get back to the peaks.

  • Nate

    It feels like now or never…time for some radical change to get NU on the same level playing field as other Division 1 schools. My heart’s been broken many times, but knowing that NU is as close to glory as it has ever been is the reason why I won’t leave this fan base. I would, however, be dissappointed if NU maintained the status quo.

  • http://theerrorofmyways.com/wordpress PilgrimCat

    Thanks for highlighting softball. I haven’t been able to get to a game in a couple of years due to external circumstances, but they are a lot of fun. Drysdale Field on a sunny afternoon is a great place to watch a game, and the team has been competitive for years. Tammy Williams was just a joy to watch play the game, in the field or at bat. Have to get back there this spring . . .

    Jim’s comment about the Lacrosse team bear repeating and expanding. One of their mottos is “get better every day.” They began the school year with some pretty intense physical conditioning that has paid off handsomely – the team seems both faster and quicker than last years, and Coach Kelly has refribbed the offense a little to take advantage of the speed. But it’s the attitude – get better every day – that has so much to recommend it, to every other NU team and throughout life. Competition is competition, in whatever venue.

    • Jim

      The reason why WLAX is such a great paradigm for NU ( sports and everything else ) is because these WLAX student athletes come to NU because they’re champions and they expect nothing less.
      The parable about last year’s season turnaround is powerful because you can almost hear the team’s stream of consciousness in the darkest moments of despair: “I didn’t come here for this !” or “I have to find that power to live up to the tradition that I bought into.” Despite the progress, I don’t think this “self-talk” is a pervasive force in other NU athletic programs.

  • wcgrad
    • wcgrad

      that’s supposed to be:

      Two Words:
      Ewing Theory

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      Selection process is very similar to the NCAA Tournaments for basketball and baseball. There is RPI and a whole bunch of other things are taken into consideration as well. 64 teams divided into 16 regions.

      The Cats did not get off to a good start this year (they are a few games under .500) but a solid showing in the Big Ten would help a lot. There are some good teams in the conference.

  • CoachRoy

    Softball is one of those sports where winning is almost totally dependent on the pitching.

    If you look at any softball league, and track the pitching, it is the team with a pitcher with the lowest ERA and On-base percentage that is usually the winner in the final.

    It helps to have a big hitter, and a couple of speedy slap bunters doesn’t hurt, but give me the rocket arm in the circle every time.

  • http://LakeThePosts DT

    PRR-
    I’ll give you NU Sports is at a crossroads of sorts… One could wish The Men’s Revenue Sports were in the same mode of management as The Women’s LAX program…

  • CEBPD

    Let’s also not forgot that Women’s Lacrosse has advantages over Football and BBALL that NU will never offer in the future.

    1. there are no pro-womens lacrosse leagues. Women come to college to get an education. NU is tops in that
    2. Best Lacrosse facility in the country. Bar none. Their stadium/field is the best in the country by a mile.
    3. Women’s lacrosse players generally come from rich, east coast schools. they are smart. No problems with admissions.

    Football/BBall?
    1. the best players want to go to NFL. NU hasn’t really produced that many NFL prospects or NBA prospects(none?)
    2. Facilities/game day atmosphere are shitty.
    3. the best football/Bball players are dumb and look at education as a means to get to the league. a lot of them NU can’t touch because of admissions standards.

    Let’s also not forget KAH has won national championships outside of NU and is a great in-game coach who always has her players prepared.

    • http://LakeThePosts DT

      Whatever the variables, Amonte-Hiller is the very best in her profession, period… We are fortunate to have her and for that matter, her husband and support staff aboard… To have broken though the East Coast dominance of the sport with a relative small number of available players, was nothing short of amazing… As challenging as anything, Men’s Hoops and Football will encounter all told… I don’t want to slight the lofty places the Softball team has been either… Great stuff… And a pro league (fledgling as it might be…) exists allied to that sport…

      • Jim

        CEPBD’s Points

        You’re right it is an apples to oranges comparison of WLAX to NU revenue sports. I could add a dozen points consistent with your list.

        One apples to apples point you’re missing. Kelly Amonte Hiller is an extraordinary coach, who appears to have all of the skills to capitalize on a great opportunity to build a dynastic program.

        There are only fragments of that capability leading NU’s revenue sports.

        • Massberry

          Yes, NU Lax may have advantages. But they aren’t unique. And none of them explain why this team has won six of the last seven national championships. (Why can’t Stanford say that, for example?) And why it’s won, as far as I know, NU’s only national championship in any sport, ever. There is evidence of sports domination here unmatched at this moment by any other team in any sport anywhere. And it’s utterly surprising and wholly miraculous that this domination happens at NU.

          So it’s refreshing to see the attention here to what is qualitatively different in this team (and refreshing to see attention to other sports and to NU sports culture in this wider context). In the last blog post, the writer Shane Ryan reports, among other illuminating tidbits, that Bill Carmody gets frustrated with the “lack of passion and emotion” displayed by the “nice guys” on the team who have comfortable lives and have no chips on shoulders. It may be likely that the members of the lacrosse team come from even more privileged backgrounds. Yet, it is clear they play with unequaled ferocity. Why is that? And is the capacity to stoke that ferocity transferable in any way to the other NU teams that at times perform inconsistently? That have never won a championship? This capacity crosses matters of strategy, emotion, conditioning, perseverance, resilience–all sports draw on these matters. If KAH were coaching, would the b-ball teams be winning NCAA games? Would the football team win bowl games? Speculation of that nature is uniquely ours as NU fans.

      • Cebpd

        The football version of KAH would be a mix between Pat Fitzgerald and Nick Saban.

        Imagine THAT combination.

        youth, fire, running a respected program,
        along with amazing recruiting, great in game coaching, and proven track record of getting players to the NFL, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME valuing education and a degree…holy crap.