Stick the Landing

The Cards celebrate a their 4th trip to Omaha. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

A few weeks ago, HBO ran the final episode of its series “The Leftovers,” a show that focused on the world in the years after two percent of its population vanished into thin air at the same time. Despite an uneven first season and a handful of questionable decisions in the two seasons that followed, “The Leftovers” stuck its landing. The finale was beautifully scripted, beautifully acted, and left the patient viewer with the perfect mix of questions and answers based on the show’s prevailing themes. It was a finale that allowed me to view the series on the whole as an overwhelming triumph and one of my favorite shows in recent memory. Had the final hour not been as stellar, then neither one of those statements would be true.

I am not alone in this. We are a society that doesn’t just enjoy a good ending – we demand it. An underwhelming conclusion might not completely invalidate the good things that preceded it, but it comes awfully close.

This is a big part of the reason why Louisville’s fourth trip to the College World Series feels so special and is being celebrated so thoroughly. Sure, beating Kentucky to get there added a little spice to the dish, but it’s the opportunity to end a bipolar season of Cardinal sports on the highest of notes that has so many around here giddy about the days to come in Omaha.

For UofL fans, the last 12 months have represented a period of extremes unlike any other they’ve experienced before.

For starters, there has been the off-the-field stuff. While it was exciting to know that the 2016-17 basketball season wasn’t going to be affected at all by the NCAA’s ongoing investigation, that black cloud was still always there. New stories kept being written, and the knowledge that the NCAA would, at some time in the future, be rendering a decision on how to handle everything was a difficult thought to shake entirely. For every positive story about UofL athletes producing record APR scores or a record number of community service hours, there was something like the findings of the UofL Foundation audit for rival fans to toss in the face of loyal Cardinal supporters. It’s been frustrating.

As far as actual competition is concerned, the Louisville football team gave all of us a September and October that we’ll remember forever. The Cardinals hammered Florida State, took eventual national champion Clemson to the wire and put themselves right in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion. Lamar Jackson capped one of the most memorable individual seasons any UofL athlete has ever had by doing something that seemed impossible just a few short months ago and becoming Louisville’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

The end of the season for the gridiron Cards, however, kept 2016 from existing forever as a “dream season” in the collective mind of Louisville fans. The team dropped its final three games of the year, including an embarrassing home loss to rival Kentucky, and a bowl game loss to LSU in which they appeared overmatched from start to finish.

The men’s and women’s basketball seasons brought with them an equal dose of turbulence. The men defeated Kentucky, Indiana, Duke and Purdue in the span of five weeks and ultimately did enough to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The women entered 2016-17 with perhaps the highest expectations in program history and overcame a rocky start to earn a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance. The two teams combined for just three NCAA tournament wins, with the men bowing out to Michigan in round two and the women being trounced by Baylor in the Sweet 16.

The most stable spotlight team in Louisville sports this season has been Dan McDonnell’s baseball Cardinals. They went longer than any other team in the country before tasting their first loss, they’ve spent the entire year ranked somewhere in the top 10, they rolled to their third straight ACC Atlantic Division title, and now they’ve won five straight NCAA tournament games to reach the College World Series and right the wrongs of the past two years.

The seismic emotional shifts that have taken place over the last 12 months have made it impossible for Louisville fans to remember each one of the highs and lows. A sublime ending in Omaha would go a long way toward forever erasing a number of those less pleasant memories. VT