Everyone knew the moment was coming. Or at least they assumed it would.
Waiting in Welsh-Ryan Arena, watching at home on TV, everyone knew Northwestern’s name would pop up in that field of 68 teams heading to the NCAA Tournament. It was a matter of when.
As Greg Gumbel named the first three regions and Northwestern had yet to hear its name called, that familiar doubt crept in. Was this all too good to be true? Could something conspire to keep Northwestern out of its first ever NCAA Tournament? Were the Wildcats simply forgotten?
Gumble named Gonzaga and South Dakota State as the one and 16 seed heading to Salt Lake City. And then the moment came.
Elation. Eruption. Euphoria.
Anywhere Northwestern fans were watching, they likely had the same reaction the fans gathered one last time in Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats had made history and were going to the NCAA Tournament.
It was the end — or the middle part — of a wild ride. The Wildcats won their first game in the NCAA Tournament, surviving a late run from Vanderbilt and a boneheaded foul with Northwestern trailing by one, and took eventual national championship runner-up Gonzaga to the brink with their own crazed second-half comeback.
But the journey mattered. The whole weekend in Salt Lake City, Northwestern fans took over to celebrate a history so many had begun to believe would never happen.
It was one of many moments of celebration throughout the academic year for the Wildcats. The 2016-17 academic year was truly a historic year for the Wildcats.
The basketball team’s trip to the NCAA Tournament stood out most. Northwestern also picked up a victory at the Pinstripe Bowl, putting a positive spin on a sometimes frustrating 6-6 season. It gave Northwestern plenty of belief that its 2017 football season could be something really special.
Between the bowl win over a ranked Pittsburgh team in New York City, an offensive explosion at Michigan State and pushing Ohio State to the brink at Ohio Stadium, the season had plenty of highs. Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson put in solid seasons as they prepare to step up as leaders next year.
And slowly but surely, the Ryan Fieldhouse is becoming a reality on the shores of Lake Michigan. The face of Northwestern is changing drastically. And the future in the two revenue sports is only looking up.
But it was a banner year for Northwestern throughout the athletic department.
Olivia Rosendahl won Northwestern women’s swimming and diving’s first national championship with a title in the platform dive.
Women’s golf earned the top seed at the NCAA championship with the lowest score in stroke play. The Wildcats came from behind to defeat USC in the semifinal and were the runners-up for the national title. There seems to be no end in sight for their dominance.
Baseball reached the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010. Behind a first round come-from-behind victory over Michigan, the team reached the Big Ten Tournament final. In coach Spencer Allen’s second season, Northwestern’s baseball future suddenly looks very bright.
The women’s soccer team won the Big Ten regular season title and reached the NCAA women’s soccer tournament.
It was a year that produced a lot of results and showed a lot of promise across all of Northwestern’s sports. The athletic department seems to be in a good place.
The lasting memory will still come from the basketball team and the history they created for the program. It is the highlight for the program. A signal that things that once seemed impossible for Northwestern are not impossible anymore. The program can achieve anything across any sport.
So many things seemed to be torn down with each victory. The final blow against that wall — Nathan Taphorn’s pass to Dererk Pardon to defeat Michigan — will go down as one of the best plays in the program’s history. It was the historic play. The one that made the moment seem assured.
When Northwestern’s name finally came across the board on the CBS selection show, the moment became all too real. Seeing the Wildcats on the floor at Vivint Smart Home Arena was surreal. Winning a game at the NCAA Tournament was unimaginable.
It all just seemed to be gravy.
A bowl win, a NCAA Tournament and strong performances throughout the athletic program? Northwestern truly had a stellar 2016-17 academic year. One of the best sports years in Northwestern’s history.
And in nearly every sport, the Wildcats seem to have a bright future. They do not seem like they are a program that will go away anytime soon.
Certainly not in football or men’s basketball. Certianly not anywhere else either.