There is very little gray area in the world of sports.
At least, that’s what we’re raised to believe as fans.
That is, after all, what an athletic competition is all about. Somebody wins. Somebody loses (I see you, soccer fans). At the end of the year, somebody wins the ultimate prize in the sport, and everybody else loses out. Unless you win that final playoff or tournament game, you go home disappointed.
In 2021, the Syracuse Orange women’s lacrosse team did not win that final game for what could have been their first ever national championship. They didn’t win the ACC tournament title, nor did they win the regular season title.
In fact, they actually finished in second place all three times. They were a three-time runner-up to a conference rival (BC and UNC twice) and finished the 2021 season without a title or a trophy.
To look at all that in the win/loss terms to which we are accustomed, you might see a very frustrating Syracuse season that ended in a lot of heartbreak. But the 2021 women’s lacrosse team existed in the rare, gray-area space where they could not win the big prize, or any prize, and still emerge as an inspirational, feel-good story.
They were an inspiration because of what they overcame, and what they sacrificed.
COVID protocols. Testing. Isolation. Social sacrifices. Basically changing everything in regards to how they go about their daily routines.
All of that, just to make it to the field in the first place. There was so much season-long, behind-the-scenes sacrifice that we never saw taking place so that we could get to the on-field adversity that we did see them overcome.
You guys know what I’m referring to: the season-ending ACL injuries to Vanessa Costantino (preseason), Emily Hawryschuk (after game one) and Meg Carney (during game 13).
Two graduate student captains. Two All-Americans. Three team leaders. All gone. I truly can’t think of a team that I’ve seen lose players of this caliber, and continue to be one of the best teams in the sport all season long.
They lost one of the best players in the country after one game and rolled through just about everybody during the regular season. They lost one of their other best players less than a week before the postseason and still made it to the title game of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
They were never phased. They simply asked a few players to step up and fill the void, which they made look incredibly easy. They flexed their determination and perseverance while showing us all how mentally and emotionally tough they were.
Life sometimes deals you a rough hand. And when that happens, there’s not much to do but roll with the punches the best you can. From COVID, to devastating injuries, to one of the toughest schedules in the country, this team was dealt their own rough hand time and time again. They did the only thing any of us can do: they rolled with it.
For me personally, thanks to my job here covering both the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, this was my first season extensively watching women’s lacrosse. I’ve been a huge fan of the sport for over 20 years now, and Syracuse was always my favorite team, even before I stepped foot on campus as a student for the first time.
I’ve always been aware of women’s lacrosse, of course, but I would usually only check in with a couple of games every year, especially when the Orange were making a tournament run. But I never really gave it the attention it deserved, and that was my mistake. I got a chance this year to see what I’ve been missing out on, and I can safely say that the 2021 Syracuse women’s lacrosse team made me a big-time believer.
There are few SU teams (any sport) that I’ve enjoyed following as much as I enjoyed following this team. They were fun. They were a force. They were tough, talented and always kept it interesting. From the wonderful play on the field, to the expertly-coordinated celebrations on the sideline, this team was an absolute joy to watch.
So, thank you, to the women’s lacrosse team, for providing one incredibly exciting ride of a 2021 season for us fans.
It didn’t end the way we all wanted, with the national title. It didn’t end with any title. But this team overcame incredible adversity from multiple fronts, fought the odds, never wavered, and made it all look like a lot of fun.
That is success that needs a little bit of a gray area to truly be appreciated.
I know I’m ready for more...