Our story so far: Maggie Lonergan's Catholic University women's basketball team has gone into the postseason tournament on a tear, but she won't settle for anything less than a berth in the final. To catch up on earlier episodes, go to www.washingtonpost.com/adventures.
Maggie Lonergan steps onto the court at Catholic's athletic center and softly calls a timeout. The referee's whistle screeches, and Maggie's 11 players gather around her in a dispirited huddle. They are losing by 14 points with as many minutes left to play against the University of Mary Washington. If they lose this game, in the semifinal round of the Capital Athletic Conference tournament, their season will end. Their anxiety is clearly boiling over. One player kicks a chair, one crumples a cup and throws it against the nearby bleachers, and another is cussing rapidly.
(Photo by D.A. Peterson)
Usually during games Maggie is the most agitated. But now a soothing calm fills her voice. "Okay, ladies," she says to the players, looking several of them in the eye. "Settle down." The players' chests are still heaving, but at least nobody is cursing or throwing things anymore. Maggie lays out a revised game plan and, dropping her voice even lower, sends the team back onto the court with a "Let's go, guys."
For Maggie and most of the players, the unraveling scene is familiar. A year ago the Cardinals also reached the semifinal round of this tournament. They were playing at home and were favored to beat a lower-seeded opponent, just like tonight. The Cardinals lost that game in what Maggie calls an embarrassment. Ever since, she has worn the memory like a brick necklace, saying that she can count this season a success only if her team advances to the final.
After the timeout, the Cardinals come back with a roar, including one streak of 19 unanswered points that leaves them with a two-point lead. But the Eagles regroup and surge to a three-point advantage with only two seconds left.
Maggie is on her feet watching junior Lindsay DiRomualdo take the final, three-point shot. It clanks off the rim, and the buzzer sounds. Their season is over, and while the Cardinals stand stunned on the court, their coach marches for the exit. Maggie is the first person, fans included, to escape the gym.
Minutes later she is alone, leaning her back into a corner and staring upwards. She wants nothing more than to be elsewhere, to grieve in private.
But the nearby sobs are impossible to ignore. Her players are waiting for her in the team's meeting room. When she finally walks through the door, she still isn't sure what to say. She stands there silently for a few moments. She piles her hair into a messy bun on the top of her head. Half the players are crying loudly, almost wailing; the others are blank-faced, like pallbearers.
"This is the hardest part of my job," Maggie begins. She tells them she's proud of the comeback, and a great 20-7 season -- "the best season of my life." But she sees her words are cheering no one. "I'm not going to torture you guys anymore," she says, finally. "I'm going to let you guys go. What I need to do right now is be alone."
Eleven players and two assistant coaches file out of the room. Maggie stands by herself in front of a dry-erase board that is scrawled with basketball strategy, before she, too, walks away.