The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team lost a heartbreaker of heartbreakers this past weekend in a 12-11 overtime defeat to No. 1 North Carolina. It was a brutal way for the season to conclude, especially since it marked the end of the careers for as decorated a senior class that the program has ever had. After having won its first NCAA Tournament game since 1990 and then falling just short of the program’s first ever Final Four made it that much harder to swallow.
Immediately after the game ended, some in the Rutgers fan base lamented the loss by comparing it to the men’s basketball team’s painful defeat to Houston in this past March’s NCAA Tournament. The scars have yet to heal and Saturday’s result flared up that wound. Rightfully so. I’m on the record saying many fans, myself included, will never get over Rutgers’ exit from the big dance this past season after a three decade absence.
Two beloved programs by a loyal fan base had breakthrough seasons and each earned NCAA Tournament victories for the first time in over thirty years. The way their seasons respectively ended were cruel, but that also signals tremendous progress.
There was also a painful end to the women’s soccer season after they suffered a penalty shootout defeat in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in April. The ultimate heartbreak.
Through the darkness of three stomach punch losses is the light of hope for the future.
Misery in defeat comes harder the farther your season goes. The more that’s on the line, the tougher it is to fall short.
It’s a basic concept, but one that Rutgers fans generally aren’t accustomed to experiencing.
For decades in most sports, Rutgers was irrelevant when it came to deciding national champions. The postseason was something you watched as a casual observer while mumbling to yourself that someday maybe it would be different. Being a Rutgers fan has always involved suffering but not in the “almost was” kind of way. Rather it was in the “never was” category. Before the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series in 2016, there was no more appropriate fan base for Rutgers fans to relate to.
Just this spring alone, men’s basketball and men’s lacrosse were one play away from beating teams that went to Final Fours. In the case of North Carolina, they still have a legitimate chance to win it all.
Think back to other losses through the years that Rutgers has had in any sport with so much at stake. I’ll wait.
Spoiler.....there aren’t many to recall.
The women’s soccer team lost a penalty shootout to rival Penn State in the 2015 College Cup, which is the sport’s Final Four. That was a bitter end to a special season.
Football suffered two brutal defeats this century with the triple overtime loss to West Virginia in 2006 and the collapse to Louisville in 2012. Both games resulted in missing out on winning the Big East outright and erased a dream appearance in a BCS Bowl like the Orange or Sugar.
The women’s basketball team lost the national championship in 2007.
Going way back, the men’s soccer team lost a penalty shootout in the national championship to UCLA in 1990 after FOUR overtimes.
That’s about it. Yes, there have been plenty of painful losses in every sport and the term “long suffering Rutgers fan” is certainly an accurate way to describe the plight of the RU faithful over the years. However, after just a handful of truly big game stomach punch defeats spread out over decades, Rutgers just had three in the past two months.
This is progress.
Heartbreak is the air we breath as sports fans. To live is better than not having done so at all. Indifference due to constant losing is a cold death. It was only five years ago that the two most prominent program’s at Rutgers, football and men’s basketball, were the worst power five teams in their respective sports.
This past school year has marked a significant step forward for the Rutgers athletic department as a whole. Five program’s making the NCAA Tournament with four of them winning. Wrestling made history with three All-Americans. Other programs made really significant progress after various levels of losing in recent years like football, volleyball, baseball and men’s soccer. Rowing looks for a first ever top ten finish at the NCAA Championships this coming weekend. There is so much to cover in a positive light from this past year for Rutgers athletics that I can’t possibly due it justice in this article. I have a comprehensive review coming soon but the gist is that this past year was a major step forward across the board.
I understand the sentiment that Rutgers needs to finally get the monkey off its back and win Big Ten titles. Season defining wins in postseason play also needs to happen for Rutgers to truly change perception nationally. However, even when those things start to occur, soul crushing losses will also take place on a regular basis. Only one team in every sport ends its season on a winning note when they are crowned national champions. Each postseason win will lead to a more painful season ending defeat.
The point is Rutgers simply hasn’t had too many true big games on the national stage over the years. As multiple program’s continue to improve and elevate the talent level, the more opportunities to create history making moments there will be. This is just the beginning.
One of my favorite songs is When My Time Comes by the band Dawes. There is a line “I wanted to pay for my successes with all of my defeats.” Rutgers hasn’t made many trips to the bank over the years. Now that they are starting to make more trips to the NCAA Tournament in multiple sports, the higher the stakes will ultimately be. That means more heartbreak, but it also means plenty of program defining wins too. Losing NCAA Tournament games isn’t a sign of the same old Rutgers. It’s the sign of a successful athletic department. The sleeping giant is now awake and just getting started. The time for Rutgers has finally come.