After the final buzzer, the Denver bench sprinted onto the field, racing to mob each other, running and jumping and laughing. On the other end, the Michigan players walked slowly, taking their good sweet time to form a huddle of their own. The familiar refrains of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” streamed through the speakers. But the Wolverines weren’t the ones celebrating.
Instead, it was the Pioneers who danced to the beat, almost as if they were performing for a small but spirited visiting crowd. They’d earned that right after beating the No. 8 Michigan women’s lacrosse team, 9-5, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They’d earned that right after beating the Wolverines on their home field, avenging an earlier loss in Colorado. They’d earned that right after defeating the higher-seeded team for a spot in the quarterfinals.
In the comfort of their locker room, Michigan’s players cried. Back in February, they wanted a Big Ten Tournament berth and a winning season. On Sunday, having done all of that and more, the disappointment flooded them. They were capable of going one more round. They all knew it.
There, after the end, the tears were bittersweet.
Late in February, Denver faced a tough weekend of non-conference games. First, it would face Stony Brook, an America East power that had nearly gone undefeated the season before. Then, it would face Michigan, which had never had a winning season.
The Pioneers beat the Seawolves. They did not beat the Wolverines.
“I was hoping that we were gonna come out of that … weekend with one win,” said Denver coach Liza Kelly. “I didn’t think it was necessarily gonna be the Stony Brook game.”
Back then, Michigan was improving, but it hadn’t yet shed its laughingstock image. But that weekend, the Wolverines put the lacrosse world on watch.
Michigan tore through the rest of the regular season, not dropping another game until it fell in College Park to the second-ranked team in the country over a month later. It finished 15-2 in the regular season and undefeated at home. It made the NCAA Tournament and earned the right to host. The Pioneers, unseeded, were shipped to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines were no longer a team against whom you could assume victory.
When Michigan and Denver met again at U-M Lacrosse Stadium on Sunday, the expectations weren’t even in the same ballpark.
But this time, the Pioneers were prepared. They stifled the Wolverines with their pressure, forcing them into turnovers. Time after time, Michigan got near the goal, but the ball plopped out of someone’s stick. Time after time, Denver took advantage.
The Wolverines barely got a good look all game. That wasn’t like them.
So there in the locker room, the Michigan players cried because they couldn’t figure it out when it mattered the most. They cried because 10 seniors had just walked off the field for the last time. And they cried because sometimes, meeting your bitter end is an accomplishment.
“It’s hard to reflect on it right now, when you’re upset about the specific game you just lost,” Nielsen said. “But I think if you go back to some of those moments — making the Big Ten Tournament, seeing on TV that we’re gonna host, those little experiences that you have along the way, and those, you sort of have to push aside today and remember what we have accomplished.”
Even in losing, playing the Pioneers again was a reminder for the Wolverines of how they beat Denver the first time — and how big it was for the program.
Nielsen always preaches that, “I’d rather lose in April than lose in May.” April losses are, after all, forgettable in the grand scheme of things. You can take April losses and learn from them, use them to prevent May losses. May losses are endings.
But in that sense, maybe for Michigan, this May loss is just an extension of next year — a way of showing the Wolverines how it feels to lose in the postseason. None of them had ever felt it before. Now, they know how much it hurts.
Now, it’ll fuel them.
Last year, every loss came with a sense of complacency. This was how it had always been for Michigan. It might as well be how it always will be. If the Wolverines played a good team close, or played good defense, or scored more goals than usual, they were happy.
This version of the team — at least in the immediate aftermath — wasn’t.
“(Last year) the team probably would’ve just been happy to be here,” Nielsen said. “And even still, the faces in the locker room, they’re upset, they know that they didn’t play well, the best they could’ve played today, and they knew we could’ve gone further. … I think it’s just a sense of expectation that the girls now have and they’ll definitely have it coming back next year as well.”
So when the Michigan players cried in the locker room after the end, there were tears of sadness, yes. But there were also tears of joy. Tears of joy for how far they’d come, tears of joy for how far they could go in the future and — especially for the seniors — tears of joy for having been a part of it in the first place and for helping finally build a foundation. After all, it’s only after the agony of losing that you can truly come to know the joy of winning.
After the pain subsides, the Wolverines will look back on 2019 and, if all goes to plan, remember it for all they achieved and for how they helped usher in the future of Michigan women’s lacrosse, with the ending a mere footnote.
And then, if that happens, they’ll smile through the tears.
Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.