Virginia sports have mastered the art of losing

Can the rest of us?

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A disheartened University student after Virginia lost to Notre Dame in the fall 2015 football season. 

Courtesy ESPN

Just when it seems there’s no more losing to be done, the sports teams at the University find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We’ve lost close ones, we’ve lost blowouts. We’ve lost as favorites, we’ve lost as underdogs. We are the Pablo Picasso of losing, constantly reinventing the form. Let’s look back at some of the most painful games from the last few years, shall we? This will be a fun and jazzy time for everyone!

In 2015, the Cavaliers nearly upset the ninth ranked football team in the nation, Notre Dame. But with 12 seconds remaining, Notre Dame backup quarterback DeShone Kizer dropped a perfect 40-yard pass into the endzone just in front of the Scott Stadium student section. The touchdown turned a 27-26 Cavaliers lead into a 34-27 loss. The game spawned a national meme called Sad Virginia Fan.

A season later, the Hoos suffered a carbon-copy loss. The 2-6 Cavalier football team came within 13 seconds of upsetting Louisville, the fifth ranked team in the nation. The Hoos led 25-24 when Lamar Jackson floated a 29-yard pass into the corner of the end zone right in front of the Cavalier student section. Another one-point lead against a heavily favored opponent erased by a long pass in the game’s dying moments. At least the Hoos are consistent.

In 2016, the one-seeded Cavaliers men’s basketball team entered their Elite 8 matchup as heavy favorites against 10-seed Syracuse. The Cavaliers led 54-39 with just 10 minutes remaining in the game. Five minutes later, somehow, Syracuse lead 64-58. Cavalier legend Malcolm Brogdon’s final appearance as a Hoo left him a few painful inches short of a Final Four berth.

Of course, little needs to be said about our men’s basketball team’s historic tournament performance last year. From now until the end of time, whenever a 16-seed pulls within four points of a 1-seed in the second half of a game, the TV station will dust off the highlights of the only time a 16-seed has ever emerged victorious from a first-round game. 

Then, the football team delivered a tour-de-force gut-wrenching loss this past weekend. A blocked punt, a fumble in the endzone, a 3rd-and-10 jump ball and a fumble in overtime all fell in Virginia Tech’s favor. In case you hadn’t heard, it’s now been 15 years since the Cavaliers won a football game against our in-state rival.

All sports fans think often about losing. Statistically speaking, unless you’re an Alabama football fan, losing happens about half the time you pull up a chair for a game. Accordingly, the sports world is packed with cliches about losing. “On to the next one,” the panting, dejected quarterback mumbles. “This will make us stronger,” assures the coach through a clenched jaw. “Well, you won the second half,” my mother used to say to me, hoping to convince me that a single late goal could somehow make up for the outlandish number conceded in the first half. And of course, there’s the biggest, truest, least soothing consolation of them all — “There’s always next year.”

The University’s teams have lost so much that we’ve developed our own set of Charlottesville-specific cliches about losing. If you want to know how to lose like a true Virginian, here’s the manual. 

First, we make generic jokes about the median SAT scores of the opposing school. This works against all opponents except Duke. Are we snobs? Definitely. Is it comforting? For a fleeting moment. 

When SAT jokes get old, we move to a slightly different flavor of elitism. We poke fun at the other school’s incestuous fan base or general lack of teeth. These also don’t work after Duke games, but are especially well-received against West Virginia and Virginia Tech. 

Then we flaunt our history. We brag about the trophies collecting dust in the basement of Scott Stadium. We pretend that the dull shine on the 1981 women’s cross country national title can wash out the crushing loss of the moment. This is the University of Virginia, after all — clinging tightly to the past is our institution’s specialty. 

And then, of course, comes the most important card in the deck for any Virginian, the easiest way to heal after many of our worst defeats. We say those five magic little words — “We’re a basketball school, anyway.” 

I’ve spent years losing like a Virginian, searching for solace in the tweets of The Black Sheep UVA and Barstool UVA. This is a terrible practice. Twitter is great for watching vines and arguing with strangers. Twitter is terrible at providing solace.

The best writing I’ve read about losing comes from the poet Elizabeth Bishop. Sports needs more Bishop, don’t you think? Just to liven up the cliches a bit. Everyone needs more Bishop. Her poem “One Art” begins as follows.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

Delightful. She continues.

“Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

Quietly, gently, Bishop dissolves the rock that lodged itself in my stomach after Bryce Perkins fumbled in overtime.

“Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”

The poem continues for another three stanzas. I re-read it this weekend. I walked around Grounds, listening to the leaves crunch underfoot. Sports are silly, of course, just distractions from more important things — but at the same time, they can occasionally nudge us towards wisdom. Our sports teams have mastered the art of losing. So has Elizabeth Bishop. Time to follow their lead.

Ben Hitchcock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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