Waiting Is Always the Hardest

The Louisville baseball team’s stunning upset loss to U.C. Santa Barabara last weekend put a bow on what will forever be remembered as one of the most uniquely bizarre athletic seasons in the history of UofL sports. While each of the flagship Cardinal programs had their fair share of success, they also dealt with some form of adversity that wound up making their respective campaigns at least somewhat unsatisfying for the Louisville fanbase.

First, there was football, where a mix of extreme youth on the offensive side of the ball and a front-loaded schedule resulted in a UofL team starting a season 0-3 for the first time since 1984. The campaign ultimately gave fans the most positive ending of all of Louisville’s spotlight sports, with true freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson playing hero in the Cards’ fifth straight win over Kentucky, and their Music City Bowl triumph over Texas A&M.

The season couldn’t possibly be characterized as a disastrous one for UofL, and the performances of Jackson and some of the other emerging stars near the end of campaign has left fans dreaming big things this summer. Still, the first month of the season ruined the same types of dreams the fans were entertaining 12 months ago and also set the table for the first five-loss team Bobby Petrino has ever fielded at Louisville.

The women’s basketball team took after their gridiron friends by turning a top 10 preseason ranking into a 3-5 start that included a lopsided loss at rival Kentucky. After that, the Cards got healthy and Jeff Walz’s top-rated recruiting class came of age, carrying the team to 15 straight wins and a return to a lofty spot in the national rankings. The team finished second behind Notre Dame in the ACC standings, and sophomore Myisha Hines-Allen was named the league’s Player of the Year. The stage seemed to be set for a run to the Final Four, but a shocking home loss at the KFC Yum! Center to sixth-seeded DePaul ruined all that.

On the men’s side, Rick Pitino’s 2015-16 team was dealing with an extreme amount of adversity before they were even able to step on the court for the first time. Led by graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the group handled the situation with more grace than anyone could have expected, and the city quickly fell in love with them. That love affair continued into the season itself, where the Cards exceeded everyone’s preseason expectations by winning 13 of their first 15 games to become a player on the national scene.

On the first day of February, Lee, Lewis and company proved to the college hoops world that they were capable of winning the big one when they took down top-ranked North Carolina 71-65. Four days later, the shocking and heartbreaking announcement that UofL would be self-imposing a postseason ban that would keep the team from playing in the NCAA Tournament was made.

How deep this team could have played into March is something that fans will be fruitlessly debating for years to come. While the elegance with which a group of UofL players handled an awful situation they had nothing to do with won’t soon be forgotten in Derby City, 2015-16 will forever be defined by the extenuating circumstances that put them in that position.

Spring brought with it arguably the best baseball team this city has ever seen, a group that produced three first-round draft picks and a No. 2 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament, the best in program history. It also brought super regional heartbreak at Jim Patterson Stadium for a second straight season.

The Louisville sports season that just went in the books won’t be remembered by anyone as the most successful ever, but the hope is that its legacy will be a table-setter for the glory that came in 2016-17. With most of its defense returning and a clear starting quarterback finally in place, the football team will likely begin the season somewhere in the top 25. In early prognostications, the women’s basketball team has been as high as No. 2, and the men’s as high as No. 5. And even with all those players drafted, Dan McDonnell will still return more than enough talent to the diamond next season to make another run at Omaha.

The waiting is always the hardest part, but it certainly feels like some much brighter days for Louisville athletics are right around the corner. VT