After years and years of Illini futility, I’ve had three general reactions to losing if I feel anything at all.
- The first is probably the best one, and I’ll call it the “aw shucks” response. Basically, I felt the Illini gave it their all but came up short because the other team was just better. The best example of this I have is the men’s basketball team taking Gonzaga down to the wire in Maui. Yeah, we lost, but you couldn’t help but feel some pride in putting one of the top teams in the nation on the ropes.
- The next and slightly worse is anger and frustration. It comes after some sort of loss where I think we just didn’t try, like 63-0 or Braggin’ Rights this year. Like, I’m not one to riot, but I kind of see where fans come from after they go ballistic after a loss. If you put so much emotional stock into something just for the people who have the most direct control over the result not caring, it doesn’t feel good. I mean, if they don’t seem to care, why should I
- The final reaction is the worst one and thankfully the rarest. I think it’s shock, and the most similar feeling I’ve had outside of sports is that just empty and spent feeling I’ve had in the middle of a depressive spell, except not as bad. I can remember feeling it three specific times. The first is the night after the Rams announced that they were officially leaving St. Louis, as I sat mindlessly scrolling through the internet seeing how everyone was reacting. The second was after the Cubs won the World Series, because I’m a Cardinals fan who delighted in their misery. The third is after Ayo went down with the knee injury and we all feared the worst for him. I suppose it’s a feeling of helplessness in the face of some higher power. If God/karma/fate doesn’t seem to care, why should I?
I’m mostly in the shock phase right now, with a tinge of anger and frustration at those in charge who seem to be bungling this whole situation every step of the way. It’s one thing to lose a game. It’s entirely another thing to lose sports altogether.
There are many different aspects of sports that I’m going to miss for the foreseeable future, like watching strategies play out and watching athletes do things that I can only imagine doing myself. Since this is an Illinois blog, I’ll focus on the two things I’ll miss that most directly relate to the Illini.
The first is that sense of community and tribalism, which of course is sports’ greatest flaw during a pandemic. There aren’t many socially acceptable instances for thousands of people to come together and scream their heads off in unison or boo some poor soul wearing stripes. I’m adamant that the best way to experience any sort of sport is in person. We’ll do our best here to keep that sense of community online, but it’s not quite the same as joining arms with a couple hundred or a few thousand fellow orange-and-blue clad idiots and singing/shouting SO TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE at the top of our lungs, intonation be damned.
The second is all the storylines that will go unwritten and unfinished. Man in Blazer Rodger Bennett has stated that soccer is incredible because it can make you feel the whole range of human emotions in a tidy two hours, but I’d go so far as to say that it’s true of basically any sport. I mean, here’s a nice little blurry triptych showing it can happen in just one second.
Look at that idiot in the hat going from Stefon-inducing fear to an active shock to indescribable joy. What a doofus. That won’t be happening for similar idiots over the next few months, and that sucks.
But it’s the season-long storylines that we won’t get that are the biggest loss. The most peculiar Illini during the spring season last year was Avrey Steiner, the freshman shortstop for the softball team who hit .276 over the season with no extra-base hits or RBIs, thus making her the perfect Moneyball player. There was also Kellen Sarver, the freshman who transitioned fairly successfully to first base for Illini baseball but looked absolutely bewildered when he made any sort of difficult defensive play, which he did regularly.
My favorite Illini story last year was Daniela Pedraza-Novak. As a senior, she was slated to be a solid 3 singles player for the women’s tennis team, but her season went horribly off the bat. I mean, she couldn’t win a set, let alone a match, and the team got off to a similarly horrible start as well. She slipped down the lineup precipitously and even dropped out for a match or two. However, she worked through it and found a place at 6 singles during conference play where she started dominating. Of course, this coincided with a complete turnaround for the team, allowing for them to finish second in the conference and secure a place in the NCAAs. Was it a perfect turnaround? Well, I don’t think Dani or the team accomplished all they wanted to last season, but I couldn’t be prouder to be a fellow Illini.
That’s why my heart goes out to Aleks Kovacevic. He’s following a similar path as Dani last season. He’s a senior All-American who got off to an abysmal start this season, as did the whole team. He lost his spot at 1 singles and hasn’t played up to his potential at all. Despite losing his singles match, I thought he showed signs of turning it around this past weekend (particularly, his laser of a backhand showed up again), but he’s not getting that chance to see it through.
This is why I think I’m reacting with shock. Things are bad, when things are bad, I look to sports cheer me up. Now my greatest source of inspiration is gone, and the athletes who dedicate themselves to inspiring folks like me aren’t getting the chance to do so. I can only hope we’ve learned enough from Dani, Mikey Dudek, Dre Brown, Ayo, Bobby, and the rest of those who put the “Fighting” in “Fighting Illini” to keep our collective head up and find our way through.