BALTIMORE – You have to feel for those in the William & Mary program. Losing once in a championship game, especially in heart-breaking fashion, is hard enough. Losing twice in a row is that much harder.
Much of the country watched on Sunday as the Tribe won an instant classic in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament in double overtime. They were going to get another chance – their fourth try in eight years – to break through and get to the NCAA Tournament. That’s a string of chances few probably thought they would ever get once upon a time, before Tony Shaver took over.
And while Shaver has had unprecedented success at the school, there’s no guarantee they’ll get another chance, even though the odds are that they will given what he has accomplished and where they are trending.
“I do believe if we keep knocking on the door, the door’s going to open,” Shaver said on Monday night.
You wouldn’t expect Shaver, or any other coach, to say otherwise. And there’s part of you that hopes he’s right one day.
William & Mary is a tough job. The academic requirements are on par with the Ivy and Patriot League schools, but the CAA is historically a tougher conference. It’s tough enough to find players with the academic credentials and talent to play in Division I to begin with.
Shaver first won at the school with less talent, masterfully crafting an offensive system that fit his personnel at the time. Gradually, though, you can see the talent base improving, and the offense evolving into one of the nation’s best shooting teams and a good defensive team. This year’s success didn’t come by accident, and now they have the best talent they’ve had in his 12 seasons at the school. They have their all-time leading scorer and their first CAA Player of the Year in Marcus Thornton, the Defensive Player of the Year in Terry Tarpey, and last season’s Rookie of the Year in Omar Prewitt. For good measure, three of their starters, including Tarpey and Prewitt, are sophomores.
This time around, it looked like things could be different, would be different. The Tribe came in as the top seed for the first time ever, and their attitude reflected that. They believed they were the top seed for a reason and should play like it, and they showed great confidence in how they played. They wanted to be the program’s first to reach the NCAA Tournament. They are, after all, competitive kids, and the opportunity to make history is something many competitors will embrace.
The win on Sunday captured the attention of many. The Tribe was a sentimental favorite, though you know they want more than that. The win was an emotional one, to be sure, and perhaps it was a bit too draining emotionally and more so physically. These are, again, competitive kids, so they wouldn’t admit if they felt like their legs were going on them; athletes thrive on adrenaline. They wanted this one badly. Shaver said that, not surprisingly, they were crushed in the locker room after the game.
There’s so much to like about this team and this program. Shaver is understated and down to earth, and an easy person to deal with. He’s won over 500 games in his career; his coaching chops are well-established. Though the main thing he ever wanted in a coaching job was high-character kids who wanted to be coached, he’s wanted to win, and he’s done that at a place where that’s not easy. And he has all that he’ll ever want.
As you might imagine, the program has plenty of good students and high-character kids. That’s why you feel for a guy like Thornton, who is similarly understated and simply wanted to win; his scoring was a known to the casual fan who knew of him, but he could always pass and showed that often, including on the game-winning shot in Sunday’s thriller. That’s why you feel for a guy like Tom Schalk, the latest in the program to win the Dean Ehlers Leadership Award, as they’ve had five in six years.
But none of that will take away the feeling they had after Monday night’s game.
The program’s progress is such that now they have a core of winning experience. The three sophomore starters have been to two championship games, and that experience helps. It will help offset the graduation of Thornton and a couple of others. Shaver has good freshmen waiting in the wings for a bigger role, and throughout his tenure he’s had players who know how to wait their turn and play well in limited roles and thrive when their roles expand later. After Monday night, Shaver noted that experience wins in the tournament, and his team will certainly have that.
William & Mary is what college athletics should be all about. They’re more than just a team to root for in hopes that they finally make it to the NCAA Tournament; indeed, they’re a team a neutral observer can really get behind. Ultimately, that’s why you have to feel for everyone in the program right now as they deal with heartbreak in the championship game once more.