Adriana Pendino could do nothing but let her emotions take control.
After the Michigan women’s lacrosse team was bounced by Denver, 9-5, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a reporter asked the senior attacker what her message to her younger teammates would be.
Pendino inhaled deeply, muttered “Sorry,” and closed her eyes to stem the tide.
Ten seconds of silence passed.
“To take it all in,” she said finally, between sobs. “ … I just want to say thank you to everyone on the team and the coaching staff for making these past four, but in particular, the past two years, so incredible. I’m so grateful to wear the block ‘M’. And to the younger girls, just take every moment in and work your hardest each game and play like it’s your last.”
Adriana Pendino’s last game came Sunday. She will never wear the block ‘M’ on her uniform again.
It barely mattered, in that moment, that Pendino, the Wolverines’ leading goalscorer this season, was one of the people most responsible for turning the program’s culture around; for guiding a five-year old program that had never had so much as a winning record to the NCAA Tournament and a national top-10 ranking. Half an hour is hardly enough time to process three months, let alone four years.
Sixty minutes of stifling, high-pressure defense from the Pioneers brought Michigan’s dream season to an abrupt end. It barely mattered, in that moment, why that ending felt so abrupt in the first place. The knowledge was there, but the feeling wasn’t quite.
“We were really hoping to be able to make it one more game, to be in the Elite Eight,” Pendino said. “Dissatisfied with the end result, but I also think just tears of joy because we did make history.”
No more history was to be made on Sunday, though. The Wolverines, who scored four goals in the first five minutes against Jacksonville two days prior, didn’t find the net until 22 minutes had elapsed, when Caitlin Muir beat Denver goalie Carson Gregg from the right side.
Muir’s goal was Michigan’s only tally of the first half, sandwiched in between two goals from Quintin Hoch-Bullen — who finished with as many as the Wolverines combined — and one from Bea Behrins.
“In the beginning we were pretty stagnant and stationary around the outside which made it easy for Denver to cover all of us,” said Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen. “They came out with a gameplan to pressure us and make us drop the ball, and they did that.”
The Wolverines’ halftime adjustments brought marginally more success. But while they carved out more chances than they did in the first half, they were continually plagued by turnovers in front of the net and failure to capitalize on transition opportunities. The Pioneers made no such mistakes.
Winning the draw after Denver’s first goal of the second half, junior midfielder Nadine Stewart made a long pass to junior attacker Lily Grass, all alone at close range with just the goalie to beat. A goal here could have been game-changing. Instead, Gregg made the save, the Pioneers cleared, and Eliza Radochonski scored to make it 5-1 a minute later.
“We started moving and cutting and moving the ball a little quicker and had some success, but it was obviously too little too late,” Nielsen said. “But all seven of Denver’s defenders are great athletes, great defenders, and they did a great job today.”
With a minute to play and Michigan in desperation mode, senior goalkeeper Mira Shane was caught out of position as Denver bore down on goal. She quickly dove back, but the ball eluded her stick and made its home in the netting.
Shane lay on the ground, seemingly processing, in real time, the reality of her career being 52 seconds away from being over. Meanwhile, Hoch-Bullen celebrated her fifth goal of the afternoon.
When it was all said and done, the Pioneers rushed the field, a picture of giddiness and excitement. On the Wolverines’ side, junior midfielder Molly Garrett picked up the ball and tossed it disdainfully against the wall with her stick.
“I said to the girls, you gotta let this feeling fuel you going into your summer workouts and fuel you going back next year,” Nielsen said. “Because you don’t want to feel like this again. Ultimately only one team gets to walk off the field happy in May and that’s the national champion, but I think the group understands that.”
For now, Michigan is not the national champion, and did not walk out of U-M Lacrosse Stadium happy. And the 10 seniors, including Shane and Pendino, have done so for the last time.
“In terms of preparation, we all were working all week in practice doing individuals, watching film and most importantly, we believed that we could do it,” Pendino said. “That is a huge stride that our program has taken, that every single girl walks out on the field and believes that, not that we can win the game, but we will win the game. That’s something that our senior class in particular has left for the younger girls and changed the mindset of what it feels like to win.”
But the Wolverines won’t experience that feeling again until next year.