(Photo courtesy of Miami Athletics)
My first three years at Miami were not exactly stellar. We went 45-58-7 in that time, and it would have been totally understandable to start doubting myself as a coach. However, my faith had prepared me for this moment. I continued to have belief in my players and our program, and took a faith-driven approach with everything we did. Our players might not have known it at the time, but everything I did was rooted in my Catholic values. Working hard. Doing things with integrity. Putting team before self. If there was a lesson I learned as an altar boy, there was probably a good chance I was applying it 20 years later as a coach.
Slowly but surely we built our program. We reached the NCAA Tournament in 2004 as a regional 3 seed, and reached it again in 2006 as a 2 seed. In 2007 we returned again, and this time we won a game in the tournament. We had yet to reach the Frozen Four, but I could see where the program was heading.
We entered the 2008 NCAA Tournament as a regional 1 seed, and it looked like this might be the year we break through. We won our first game to reach the quarterfinals, and with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line against Boston College, we went to overtime. BC ended up scoring the game winner in OT, but a year later, nobody was grieving over that loss. We were on a mission to win a National Championship.
It looked like that dream was going to come true, until the unthinkable happened. We had played over 2,500 minutes of hockey that season, and the last minute of regulation in the title game was the most uncharacteristic minute of hockey we had all year. But it wasn't just our team who was denied of a championship. It was the entire Miami Valley.
Oxford, Ohio was probably preparing for the biggest celebration our town had ever seen, and that victory was ripped away from them. But if they ever felt devastated, they never let me know. What they did tell me, however, was just how much we inspired them.
To this day, when I run into MU alumni at airports around the country, they tell me about what that team or game meant to them. Where they were. Who they were watching it with. How they reacted. It's almost like they have to tell me. It's part of the fabric of their story. Of our story.
For better or worse, that moment will always be associated with me and the program. There won't be a day in my life where suddenly I wake up and that game never took place. That doesn't mean I spend my time replaying the game in my head, but I know that game was part of God's plan for my life.
My players and I didn't shy away from what happened. We embraced what took place and used it as fuel for the next season. It was almost like when you’re swimming in the ocean and you see a wave coming your way. If you try to swim away from it, the wave will catch up with you and come crashing down. But if you swim right at the wave, there's a chance that it will break behind you.
There was no Option B for me or my players. The only way out of this mess was to come closer together and channel everything into motivation for 2010.