You might have seen this coming, but the first on our list of conference match-ups to keep an eye on is Virginia v. Virginia Tech. If all goes to seed, they’ll face off in the final of this coming weekend’s Virginia Conference Championships in Blacksburg, VA.
As a Virginia alumnus, I can’t really claim non-bias here. Still, I think it’s safe to say that when the Series rolls around, Night Train holds the upper hand over Burn: while Virginia holds a 3-0 Series record over Virginia Tech since 2008 and has not lost a game at Sectionals in the same time span, Tech’s finishes have been 6th, 4th, and 3rd. Virginia Tech co-captain Evan Klein acknowledges the disparity, saying that while his team has taken down Virginia at two different UOA events in 2010, “we always seem to fall short against UVA at Sectionals.”
So why even pay attention? 2007. That’s why.
2007 was harsh for Night Train. The team had finished dead last at Atlantic Coast Regionals the year before, and while we figured we had nowhere to go but up, we were wrong. In December of 2006, one of our captains had to leave school. We went 0-3 in pool play at Queen City, won only two games at Southerns, and dropped a game to our then-rival Richmond at the only tournament we had ever hosted on our home turf. I played on the O line, and I remember us being so out of synch that one day, out of desperation, a grad student showed up with seven beers and ordered us to take a break from practice and go hang out together. It was an effort to build up some chemistry, and it didn’t work.
Finally, we hit rock bottom at Sectionals. After a pool play loss to William & Mary, we were sent to the 2nd place bracket. And after a Saturday afternoon win over Tennessee- Chatanooga, we were set to play Virginia Tech on Sunday morning. And after THAT, well… you can probably guess.
Virginia Tech beat us, 13-10. I honestly don’t remember all that much about the game, I just remember them celebrating. And while we were still in contention for the 4th and final bid to Regionals, the wheels had already come off. You want to know how it can get worse than finishing 16th at Regionals? Try not qualifying.
Realizing that your season is over before it should be is awful. You feel this fake, empty optimism, like you should be able to go back and fix a few mistakes but just can’t because you remember that time travel is impossible.
In 2007, Virginia Tech played a big part in giving us, Virginia, that feeling. From that point on, playing them has meant something. For the rest of our college careers, my teammates and I drew motivation from that Sectionals loss. Hell, it still pops into my head every once in a while when I’m on the track. Whenever I think of Virginia Tech, I think about them rushing the field and being happy to see me and my teammates lose. And then I think about wanting to beat them.
These days, most of the guys on Night Train and Burn weren’t even playing in 2007. For Virginia, the recent Sectionals success makes the loss a very distant memory, and for Virginia Tech, the focus is on turning the tables in the here and now. But speaking for Virginia, it’s worth remembering the biggest game in our shared history because of the impact it had on our determination and work ethic.
When I talked to Virginia Tech fifth-year Scott Forrester about this year’s Conference Championships, he stressed the rivalry’s renewed importance. “Beating UVA is definitely a goal of ours, as it has been the last few years. This year it is even more crucial as it looks like we’re the top two in the Atlantic Coast Region with only 1 bid to Nationals.” He also added “we will certainly have to play at our best to beat those guys, but we’ve seen where we can get our breaks and do work on offense.”
I hope he’s wrong. We’ll see this weekend.
Photo by Ian Toner