In the locker room after the 2012 Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Championship game, Men’s Head Basketball Coach Clay Nunley pushed his own emotions aside as he worked to help his team find lessons in defeat—just minutes after a battle that came down to the last 90 seconds.
“Sometimes in life, you can’t judge your success by the scoreboard,” he said later. “You can do everything right, you can work as hard as you can and play your best, and that may not be reflected in the final score.”
On that February afternoon, the scoreboard displayed the 65-61 loss against nationally ranked Virginia Wesleyan College. But what it did not show was the journey that had brought this young team so close to the title in one of the nation’s toughest leagues—for the second year in a row. It did not reveal how far the team had come since its founding members stepped onto the court in 2007 during Randolph’s first year of coeducation or that three of those students, now alumni, cheered from the stands.
“You understand how fragile it is to be a part of something this special,” said Colton Hunt ’13, an economics major with a 3.93 GPA, the ODAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year, and the tournament MVP. “It is definitely crushing that we didn’t win, and for that moment you think the world is over. But tomorrow is going to come, and you realize that you may not have the trophy, but you have these relationships, these bonds with people you care about. You’ve built a family. That definitely transcends any championship.”
When Nunley recruited that first group of students, he looked for more than athletic talent. “We knew that we needed to find individuals we could lose with before we could win,” he said. “You know you are going to be tested, you know you are going to go through adversity, and if you don’t have students with character and perseverance, you will never get to a point of success.”
The first two seasons were a struggle for those students and the coaching staff. The coed transition was difficult and the competitiveness of the ODAC was challenging. But Nunley’s message never changed. “Learning to deal with that adversity is necessary,” said Nunley, who was named the ODAC Coach of the Year in 2011. “When you are winning, anyone can be a front-runner. But it is when you are challenged that you find out what is at your core.”
Last year, the WildCats were edged out of the championship by Randolph Macon College. Facing that same team in the 2012 semi-final game, the WildCats rallied, beating them for the first time and earning a spot in the final. “I always tell my players that if you are going to do something, do it in a way where you will have no regrets,” Nunley said.
After the championship game, the team found strength in one another. In the locker room, Nunley saw raw emotion and grief, but he also witnessed the growth and maturity that allowed his players to see beyond the loss to the magnitude of what they had accomplished—and the possibilities that awaited them next year.
“I know my players wish they could have those last seconds back,” he said. “But they don’t feel empty because they let something slip away. They played as hard as they could and gave it everything. What they will take from this is more important than winning. They will have the relationships they’ve built and the life lessons they’ve learned. These experiences are the ones they will come to value the most.”
For the seniors, the final game was bittersweet. “We had this amazing opportunity to help start something here,” said Derrick Woods-Morrow ’12, a studio art major and president of the senior class. “The seniors went into that game knowing it could be the last time we played. You owe it to your teammates, your coach, and especially yourself to play your hardest and to leave everything out there on the court.
“Sometimes you try really hard, and you don’t make it,” he added. “But it’s always worth it.”