Over three and a half decades, Nancy Stevens has won more games than any coach in the history of NCAA Division I field hockey. Before Sunday, she had not won the one that mattered most.
"A couple of years ago we lost on penalty strokes to Maryland in the tournament," Stevens said Monday. "That's real close. Two years ago in the Final Four, we lost in double overtime to Carolina. We've been sooooo close."
The difference between a winner and a champion is an inch, a second, a bounce. Yet as seasons turn into decades and a coach fails to close that hard-to-define difference, "sooooo close" becomes a gulf that grows wider. So wide that it begins to define a career.
It happened to Gene Mauch in baseball, Bud Grant in the NFL, Jerry Sloan in the NBA. It happens to many coaches in many sports. The microscope can be penetrating, even unfair.
There is only one answer.
Win it all.
On Sunday, with her 572nd career win, Stevens did exactly that when UConn defeated Duke 2-0 for the national championship at Old Dominion.
"You look at your life and you are appreciative for all the good things that have happened," Stevens said. "I was able to help my team [West Chester] win a national championship on penalty strokes as an athlete. I was part of two national championships as an assistant coach in lacrosse at Penn State.
"You feel you have this full life as a coach. But it is like Phil Mickelson before he won his first major. It was not on his resume. Yeah, you want it for yourself, but when you're in this business, it isn't about you."
That was as close as Stevens, who coached at Northwestern before arriving in Storrs in 1990, would allow for public introspection. She much preferred to talk about how her women not only proved Sunday that the moment was not bigger than them, but they ultimately were better than the moment.
"The real payoff is seeing the joy on their faces," Stevens said. "If I was to focus on my accomplishments, it would be rather selfish. I'm happy for this, but it doesn't define me. I really do believe that."
That doesn't lessen the joy her players feel for Stevens.
"She's a great coach," said Chloe Hunnable, the delightful junior scoring machine from Halstead, England. "We all love her to pieces. She is a surrogate mother to us. We have this saying, "We aren't going into it for the trophy, we're going into it for each other.' We wanted to do it for her, too. Our coaching staff is phenomenal. To see their faces when we did it was magical."
Stevens quantified the magic:
1. Goaltending. Two-time first-team All-American Sarah Mansfield was great; 2. Players like Hunnable played their best in the biggest moments. "And that's a tough quality to recruit," Stevens said; 3. Team speed. Stevens recruited the Bolles sisters, Marie Elena and Olivia, from suburban Philadelphia, in part, because they won a 1,600-meter relay at the Penn Relays. They are two of the fastest players in the country. "Two are so difficult to contain," Stevens said; 4. Her longtime colleagues Paul Caddy and Cheri Herr. Continuity is a key. So is Caddy's ability to recruit the U.K.
"I knew absolutely nothing about the school when I arrived for the first time with my mom and grandma, who came to settle me in," Hunnable said. "As we got near campus, there was this sign on the side of the road that said, 'Basketball national champions.' I'm like, 'Wait. They have basketball at UConn?' I was clueless. When I went to my first American football game as a freshman [at Rentschler], I was so overwhelmed I cried. Marching bands. Cheerleaders. That's the stuff you see in films back home in England. I'm like, 'I can't believe it! I'm actually here!'"
The tears would return Sunday, but only after she scored her team-leading 23rd goal on a penalty corner, only after Mckenzie Townsend redirected her drive to make it 2-0, only after Hunnable nearly scored twice more and she and fellow Brit Mansfield had led the Huskies to the school's third field hockey title and 17th overall national championship.
"Everybody else is cheering and smiling and I was bawling my eyes out," Hunnable said. "I couldn't stop. It still doesn't quite seem real."
The reality is before Princeton won last year, ACC teams took 10 national titles in a row. An ACC team has been in the championship 20 of 21 years. So there is delicious irony at work here. The ACC hasn't wanted UConn, yet the Huskies struck back as a Big East associate member. The American doesn't sponsor field hockey. UConn needed a conference with an automatic NCAA bid.
"The ACC has been so dominant," Stevens said. "So I think this is good for the sport. We were proud to represent the Big East, and therein lay the irony.
"Our program has like 24 Big East championships. We have a legacy. But it's like Geno Auriemma said. The conference doesn't define your program. He has defined his with eight national championships."
If we are to define the turning point of the 2013 season, it was in the 24 hours between an embarrassing 5-0 loss to Old Dominion and a 2-1 loss to North Carolina at ODU in late October. The Huskies had been 13-1, ranked No. 2, but would lose three in a row.
"I had surgery on my hip in January and Coach Paul said to me, 'Chloe, when you come back, I want you really fit, because we're going for a national championship,'" Hunnable said. "In the other years, they hadn't really come out and said this is our aim.
"And it seemed so possible. We coasted along. Then we hit that rough patch. We really owe it to Old Dominion. That game changed us."
As they were stretching in the cooldown, Mansfield said the players got together without the coaches. After dinner, she talked it over with tri-captain and roommate Marie Elena Bolles. They decided to act. With the coaches in a team meeting, there would be emotional words.
"Our captains sat us down and said, 'OK, this is it,' " Hunnable said. "We have to buck our ideas up [British for try harder]. We can sink or we can turn around and make our season fantastic.
"We changed a lot of our tactics. We hadn't practiced them at all, but the fact we played so well against North Carolina was good. Even one of their girls said, 'Wow, you guys are actually way better than we thought.'"
Stevens said the losses had revealed weaknesses that hadn't been apparent. They changed the starting lineup. They changed personnel on the defensive corner and attack corner units.
"That's a lot of changes midway through the season, but the team all bought in. Although we lost to North Carolina, we played our best game. That was the turning point. It wasn't the exact same as [the 2011 basketball national championship] with Kemba Walker, but there was kind of a similar path."
They beat ODU to win the Big East Tournament. In the Final Four, they avenged their loss to Carolina in a shootout. In the end, the Huskies would run off eight wins in a row.
"I talked to that player from North Carolina again [Friday], but not after the game," Hunnable said. "She was probably pretty devastated."
On Monday, "still over the moon," Hunnable made her way to the airport to pick up three friends from England to spend the Thanksgiving holidays. Mansfield was on her way to Florida. She'll graduate in May and plans to remain in the U.S. as a coach.
One of the reasons Nancy Stevens said she took the job in Storrs was because Diane Wright had won national titles in 1981 and 1985 at UConn.
"I thought it was a place we could build on that legacy," she said.
On Sunday, she was proved right.
"We have a good core group coming back," Stevens said. "They're really hungry to try to win another one. This probably has given me a few more years, hasn't it?
"Everybody in American field hockey knows Coach's name," Mansfield said. "We're thrilled about what happened."
What happened is this: After the name of Nancy Stevens, the coach with the most wins, there are two words today that will never be erased.