Forman: Unlikely end to improbable season for Northwestern

Matt Forman

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Speechless.

There are few words to describe Northwestern’s thrilling, heart-stopping, come-from-behind 8-6 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

University President Morton O. Schapiro’s reaction might be the closest way to describe the dramatic win.

“Do you believe it?”

Schapiro pumped his fist and clapped as he walked down the first-base line at Rocky Miller Park. His question wasn’t quite like Al Michaels’ famous call in 1980, but it had the same impact. Schapiro might as well have been asking if every NU fan in the stands believed in miracles. And after seeing Saturday’s game against the Spartans, everyone’s answer would have been the same as Michaels’ next word: a resounding “yes!”

With one down in the ninth inning, coach Paul Stevens, pitching coach Tim Stoddard and second baseman Trevor Stevens were sitting together in the last place you would expect to see them: beyond the right-field fence, sitting on a plank of wood. All three were tossed from the game on Trevor’s controversial collision at the plate the inning prior.

But the trio didn’t have to spend too long on the outside looking in. Paul Snieder provided the game’s heroics, blasting a three-run, walk-off, no-doubt bomb beyond the fence in right that landed right near his coaches and fellow teammate. Seconds later, the group flooded the field from the right-field corner to take part in the wild celebration behind home plate.

Three months ago, no one other than Paul Stevens could have seen Snieder’s “shot heard round Evanston” coming.

See, I went to one of the Wildcats’ first practices of the season and I was doing very little other than doubting Stevens’ squad. What was there to believe in? Stevens said before the first weekend of the season-a four-game set the Cats lost by a combined score of 58-9-that this group was his best since 2006, which was the last year one of his teams went to the Big Ten tournament. I brushed that aside as coach speak. What else was Stevens going to say-His team was no good?

“Do you realize how much and how far they have come, what they’ve accomplished?” Stevens said. “The record isn’t unbelievable, but their performance is, and their perseverance. It’s something to stand up and take notice about.”

That opening series didn’t do anything to quell my concerns. But I was just like everyone else. I didn’t know what was brewing in the clubhouse.

What did Stevens stir up? A team that embodied his favorite clichés: intestinal fortitude, a never-say-die attitude and a subtle confidence.

Let’s put this accomplishment in perspective. Stevens took a team that went 14-35 last year to the Big Ten tournament. And that came after this year’s team had no returning conference all stars and lost its best player to the draft.

After Stevens soaked up the post-game merriment and took questions from reporters, he couldn’t hold back the tears from running down his face. The joyous emotion overcame him.

“There’s a lot of special kids in this group,” Stevens said. “There’s 23 guys that just believe and they have faith. And they have been that way all year when nobody else believed in them. I guess that’s a little bit about why I’m emotional about what they’ve accomplished.”

He had predicted this team would come together, and they made him look like a prophet. But that wasn’t why Stevens was teary-eyed. He was emotional because his players pulled off the improbable win-and-in victory for him.

“I don’t know if you have the stat line for whenever Stevens gets tossed,” senior backstop Chad Noble said. “But I think we’ve won every game that he’s gotten tossed in.”

Just like Snieder’s bullpen entry music says, Stevens has the “heart of a lion.” If you’ve ever gotten a chance to spend time with the 23rd-year coach, you know how he treats his players like family.

That’s why right after Snieder stomped on home plate, the players didn’t spend much time celebrating with each other. Freshman centerfielder Arby Fields led a pack of players down the first-base line and gave Stevens a bear hug. This one was for their coach, who believed in them when nobody else did.

The Cats have taken that backs-against-the-wall approach all season, so Saturday was nothing new for them. And it’ll be that way when they take the field Wednesday against Indiana in the opening game of the conference tournament.

And now, there’s little reason for me to do anything but believe in NU.

With the momentum the Cats have going, there could be another miracle in Columbus next weekend. Stevens might have to do his best Herb Brooks impression:

“Great moments are born of great opportunity, and that’s what you have here. … This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

Editor in chief Matt Forman is a Medill junior. He can be reached at matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu.

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