With the track and field championships this weekend, Oregon will close the book on the 2012-13 school year, a year that has to be considered among the best ever in Oregon athletics history. The football team won back-to-back BCS bowl games for the first time in school history. Men's basketball made a surprise run to both the Pac-12 Tournament title and the NCAA Sweet Sixteen. Women's volleyball advanced all the way to the national championship match. Women's indoor track and women's cross country won NCAA national titles, and Acrobatics & Tumbling added another major national championship. Softball and baseball both lived in the top 10 for much of the season, and both golf teams had strong seasons, the women's team making it to the NCAA championship tournament. And both outdoor track teams could provide a sweet finish to the year, as both have a shot at a national championship. Hell, even women's Ultimate Frisbee won a national title!
So why can't I shake the feeling that this year was, somehow, not a success?
Clearly, it was. All you have to do is look at the men's basketball team to know about the magic that took place in green and yellow this year. Picked to finish in the middle of the pack, or worse, in the Pac-12 this year, Oregon gelled around freshmen guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, and rebounding wizard Arsalan Kazemi to race to the top of the Pac-12 standings. After losing Artis to injury, and the basketball to the other team about 18 times a game, the Ducks missed out on the Pac-12 regular season title, and were in danger of losing their NCAA bid which seemed so secure in January and February. But the Ducks stormed into the Pac-12 tournament, and boosted by Jon Loyd, self-proclaimed owner of Las Vegas, ran away with the championship and the autobid to the Big Dance. And despite being handed an offensively low #12 seed, Oregon made easy work of higher seeds Oklahoma State and Saint Louis. Their Cinderella run ended at the hands of eventual national champion Louisville, but this was a huge step for a team who was supposed to be spending late March competing for a CBI or NIT title, instead of a national title.
But I'm still left with that nagging ache, that perhaps the Ducks left something on the table this year.
The feeling started as I watched Alabama demolish Notre Dame in the BCS Championship game. Multiple articles have been written on this blog about how hard it is to win a national championship in football. In many years, a team can do everything in their power to earn a chance to play for it all, and never get that chance. That wasn't the case when Oregon was outcoached and outmatched in their own building by Stanford. After scoring 191 points in their previous twelve quarters, Oregon's high-powered offense managed only 14 in four quarters and an overtime against the Cardinal. The Ducks played their worst game of the season against the best opponent they faced all year, and it cost them a chance to play for a national title against one of the worst title game participants in BCS history. Opportunities like that don't come around often. And Oregon missed that one.
Equally as disappointing were the finishes to both the baseball and softball seasons. A Pac-12 title for the women, and a school record in wins for the men are both commendable achievements, and I'm proud of both teams for their performances this year. But playoff losses always sting a lot more when you're the favored team, playing in your building. Both teams were among the top 8 seed in the tournament, but neither team could advance to the round of 8. Softball was outdone by an off-weekend from all-conference pitcher Jessica Moore, and silly mistakes that happened at the worst possible time, and baseball's lack of hitting in the first two games drained the pitching staff, who couldn't survive the heinous five-games-in-four-days format of the regional round. To put baseball and softball in perspective, softball would be like a #1 seed losing in basketball's Sweet Sixteen, and baseball a #2 seed losing in the Round of 32. Would Indiana, Kansas, or Gonzaga, top seeds that lost in the Sweet Sixteen or earlier this past March, consider their seasons a success? To be that highly ranked means you're expected to make a serious run at a national championship, no matter your past history of success. Neither team accomplished that this year.
What does this mean for Oregon athletics going forward? Oregon had 11 teams spend time in the top 10 in the country in their NCAA-sanctioned sport. This is unequivocally a good thing. But it's time to take the next step. In terms of national branding, funding, and performance reputation, Oregon has reached elite status, competing on a department-wide level with schools like Michigan, Texas, Stanford, Florida, and Notre Dame. Nearly every sports team on campus can be considered a contender, and numerous sports teams have national championship ability. And as long as the athletic department continues its high priority of excellence in all sports, some team will break through and win Oregon's first non-running national championship since 1939. But it didn't happen this year, and I'm allowed to be irrationally upset about that, because perennially contending for a title in any sport in which we compete is becoming more and more of a reality, and as much fun as it is to be the upstart, it's more fun to win.