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November 16, 2012

Weekend Wrap: UNC edition

There is a balance that goes into being a fan, one that requires a lot of those willing to take a turn and ride the ride. And when the return on investment isn't met, it makes for an uncomfortable reality and an even more bewildering way forward.

How do you reconcile a team scoring just 13 points against one that had just given up 68? How do you square losing a make-or-break game in the blink of an eye? How?

Thursday night, in a crushing loss against North Carolina in a game that unraveled quickly and without warning, the issues that plagued UVa throughout the 2012 season reappeared with a vengeance. In so doing, a lot of the goodwill bought and paid for these past two weeks was zapped. And without that earned capital, being a fan became a considerably tougher proposition with one game left on the schedule.

Recall, UVa was down by a touchdown and had the ball on the Carolina 1-yard line with about a minute left in the third quarter. It appeared the Cavaliers were about to tie things up. Nine minutes later, the Heels were suddenly up 24 points and cruising to a 37-13 victory in what ended up being an empty Scott Stadium.

To be alright with those turn of events, whether you were watching from a couch inside your living room or from rather chilly seats in Charlottesville, is asking a lot.

Let's be honest: What Wahoo fans have longed for this season hasn't been all that much. They just want a team that gives great effort, to see players/coaches learning from mistakes, and to see their squad provide at least as much joy as heartbreak.

UVa hasn't delivered on at least two of those and going into the season finale against Virginia Tech next weekend, there is a small, rare, and somewhat outlandish chance that perhaps the Cavaliers will make good on some level. And even then, by some accounts, the team will still have failed this season.

Truth be told, you can only see dumb, drive-killing penalties, dropped 81-yard touchdowns, and repeated futility against the same kind of passing play over and over until fans can't or won't sign up for that "one more ride."

At the same time, if UVa beats Virginia Tech next weekend in Blacksburg (particularly if the Hokies are playing for bowl eligibility) then the Cavaliers will have given fans something significant, something worth remembering. After all, Tech has owned this series over the last decade and too many Wahoo fans have had to hear about it. Constantly.

There is an undeniable feeling that even then, even if UVa is able to get a win over the most bitter of rivals, questions that have been asked loudly all season aren't getting answered anytime soon.

This is a program that needs some course correcting because there are no simple answers when a team goes from 4-8 to 8-5 and then to 4-7.

Maybe it's the access to the team, where fans can now hear from coaches and players so routinely. Maybe it's the access to other fans, where message boards give people a place to vent with folks wondering and raging over the same things as them. Or maybe it's the cost (monetary, emotional, etc.) inherent in being a fan of a team that isn't improving.

Regardless, fans have expectations and for a program like UVa's, those expectations aren't lofty. By and large, fans just want to compete.

I have always believed that professional and college sports were different in how we should view those involved and I truly believe many fans understand that. But that also doesn't excuse college players from failure and its impact. And it surely won't allow for anything remotely close to a pass for coaches who are paid a lot of money to produce more than we're seeing.

And yet it's hard to hear someone like senior linebacker LaRoy Reynolds, having just played in and lost his final game in Scott Stadium, and not feel at least a little bad. It's difficult to hear him and not think that players too have expectations. Only they don't get to blame anyone else when they fail.

"It's a lot of emotions," he said. "I loved Scott Stadium, I love the fans, the energy that everyone brings. It's disappointing. It hurts, honestly. You put in so much work, you put in so much effort. All of the guys, collectively, when everyone has worked extremely hard to reach a goal and you come up short. Like I tell the young guys, you've got to value the game and value what it gives you. It gives you an opportunity to do something you love. And whenever you step on the field, that's how you've got to approach it.

"I just appreciate everybody. All of the fans. The program. It's been amazing."

Those are words of someone who has matured into his role as a team leader, carrying the burden of playing in front of those fans. To me, they are also the words of someone who has grown weary of failing more often than not. And they are also the words of someone who has managed to have perspective on what it all means.

The Wahoos have one more game to make good on the promise of this season, one more time to take the field before football goes back on the shelf for eight months.

For their sanity, and ours, let's all hope this ride is one worth taking.


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