The announcement that UW-Eau Claire women’s hockey coach Erik Strand was the co-Coach of the Year for the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference was welcome and well-deserved. The Blugold women fell just shy of the conference title while sporting a 9-3-1 record.
The championship series was about as close as you could get. UW-River Falls took the first game by a single goal. The Blugolds stayed alive with a 3-0 win, with all three goals coming in an 11-minute span. Game three was tied with less than two minutes to go, when River Falls found the clinching goal.
Both teams have set the bar high for a long time. It was the fifth consecutive season the two teams played for the conference title.
This was a weird year to be almost anything, but especially for extracurricular activities. High performance in athletics, music or almost any other activity outside the classroom depends on a certain amount of familiarity, of repetition. Practicing and getting to know the others on your team is critical, and doing so during a pandemic wasn’t easy.
The Blugold women stood out, though. They worked hard and made it happen for their team. Three members made the WIAC first team in recognition of their work on the ice. Strand’s pride in his team, expressed after their season-ending loss to River Falls, was well-founded.
While it’s always nice to be able to write an editorial praising a local team’s accomplishments, wins aren’t the measure for whether we support local athletes. We hope it isn’t yours, either.
The team that wins a championship shows poise under pressure. They get the praise, the cheers.
Think for a moment about the other end of the spectrum. Think how much it takes for an athlete to step back out for one last game in a winless season. That team has had a bad year. Coaches know it. Parents and fans know it. The athletes certainly know it.
But still, there’s that last game to go. There’s that last opportunity to refuse to give in, even when pride is the only thing left to play for. Giving it your best effort in that kind of situation takes an internal strength that’s worth admiring.
We won’t belabor the point. There have been plenty of feel-good movies and television shows made over the years that hammer home the point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and enough sap to take care of Wisconsin’s syrup-making needs for the foreseeable future.
Instead, we ask that you think a little bit differently about what local teams really are.
We don’t root for local teams because they win or lose. We root for them because they’re our local teams. They’re the players who put on the uniform and give it their best shot. In their younger years they are our sons and daughters, people we’ve known their whole lives. People we want to see succeed.
In college, they’re young adults who have come to our community in part to represent the schools that call the Chippewa Valley home. Sure, some have their eyes on higher levels, but the vast majority play for love of the game and to represent their schools.
Sports aren’t life and death issues the vast majority of the time. They never will be. But they do enrich our lives in many ways. And, over the coming year, we hope we’ll be able to get back into the stands as fans rooting our teams on. That’s already happening with some limited attendance, and there’s reason to hope for more.
For now, though, we’ll keep it simple. Congratulations to Coach Strand and to the players who made the WIAC all-conference teams. The honors are well-earned. You all deserve to be proud of the season and how you overcame the challenges it presented. We’re proud of you.
Of course, we’d be proud regardless. You’re one of our local teams.