Monday, February 27, 2012

The Torture of Being a Sacred Heart Pioneer Fan

As a diehard Sacred Heart Pioneer basketball fan since enrolling at the school as a shy pimpled-face teen in 1997, I have felt a special connection with the team that calls the Pitt Center home.  I can’t explain it nor quantify it, yet as a former student athlete myself (well kind of, I played tennis but had a career losing record in singles), I just feel closer to players and the action.  It’s a ridiculous feeling, I know, but maybe the feeling exists because Sacred Heart plays in a conference that isn’t the Big East, where 6-foot-8 athletic freaks are jumping 11-12 feet for rebounds or lightening quick guards are finishing layups despite absorbing 2-3 body blows on the way to the hole.  Sacred Heart is the small school, the underdog, the team comprised of undersized, slower, lesser talented players, all with a singular dream of playing with the big boys in the NCAA tournament.  My Pioneer fandom revolves around that dream, that maybe someday we could play a Duke or Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

With that dream in mind, you can imagine my disappointment when Sacred Heart lost in consecutive Northeast Conference finals in 2007 and 2008.  That feeling was worse than the lowest points of my professional sports fandom.  It was worse than witnessing Aaron Heilman give up a 9th inning bomb in Game 7 to Yadier Molina.  It was more painful than watching Michael Vick and the hated Eagles mount a 21-point comeback in the 4th quarter, which essentially bumped the Giants from playoff contention in 2010.  Those moments sucked, don’t get me wrong, but I was able to move on after a few hours or a day or two.

But when I watched Mount St. Mary’s defeat Sacred Heart on their home court in the 2008 NEC Championship game, I was legitimately depressed for a solid week.  I’m sure my depressed reaction seems pathetic from afar, to the casual fan.  Hell, my friends still give me a hard time about following Sacred Heart and a one-bid conference so closely, when I don’t even live within the vicinity of Fairfield, CT.  But that’s just the way I am.

In comparison, this Sacred Heart season has almost been as difficult to watch as the 2008 championship loss.  I was hopeful the Pioneers could make that next step back into NEC relevance again, after getting pushed to the back of the pack the past 2 years.  Well that next step hasn’t quite happened yet.  Sure, they are back in the NEC playoffs, but excuse me if I don’t declare it a success when Sacred Heart loses more conference games than they won.  And the way they’ve lost has been absolutely brutal.

Just how brutal, you ask?  In close games where either team was within 2 possessions with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, Sacred Heart is 4-8 against NEC competition.  More specifically, Sacred Heart is 0-6 in those close games when facing the NEC’s top 4 teams (LIU, Wagner, Robert Morris, and St. Francis, NY).  0-6!!  Whether it’s losing on a Velton Jones buzzer beater or a Travis Nichols tip-in off a missed shot, the Pioneers have simply failed to execute when it’s mattered most.

Looking deep into the numbers, I think the problem has been a little bit of everything.  For example, when they lost to Central Connecticut in overtime, it was probably a combination of nerves (Swidowski missing two free throws down one with 13 seconds left in overtime) and poor coaching (not drawing up anything creative for SHU’s two final possessions in regulation).  In their stunning loss against Monmouth, defense was a huge problem, as the Pioneers gave up an unacceptable 15 points on Monmouth’s final 7 possessions of the game.

I could go on and on, but I realize expressing my torture further won’t keep you reading, nor give me any extra sympathy.  So I’ll stop.  And hope that Sacred Heart can somehow pull off the unthinkable and eliminate LIU -- the defending NEC champions -- on Thursday.  Based on the records and trends, there’s no indication that will happen, but that’s the beauty of a one-and-done tournament format.  A die-hard fan can hope, because even the underdog has a chance.

My prolonged season of pain in rooting for the Pioneers can certainly be quelled temporarily with a crisp, well-executed effort at LIU.  All I ask is for the Pioneers to play good basketball for all 40 minutes.  Not 38 minutes.  Not 39 minutes and 56 seconds.  40 minutes.  Is that really too much to ask?

We will find out on Thursday.  If the Pioneers do predictably fail, please don’t let it be on a buzzer-beating bucket from someone like Julian Boyd or Michael Culpo.  I’m not sure how many more of these gut-wrenching defeats I can take.

You can follow Pioneer Pride on Twitter at @pioneer_pride

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