One Last Shot: The Story of the 2007 Towson University Roller Hockey Team
By Matt Vensel
Sep 13, 2007, 20:39
As the charter bus pulls up to the leading docks of the University Union on a sunny Monday afternoon, it’s too late for the members of the Towson University roller hockey team to work on their slap shots or to hit the gym for one last workout. As the bus slowly comes to a halt, the countdown finally hits zero. After seven and a half months of late-night week-night practices at a rink in a remote industrial park forty-five minutes away, grueling conditioning sessions that consisted of running seemingly endless sprints and pushing around a pick-up truck, and grueling game weekends that pulled the players away from regular campus life twice a month, it is time to see if the team is ready to finish what it has started.
The players are upbeat and excited, better yet, hyper, as they load their bulky equipment bags and hockey sticks into the storage compartments under the bus. They hop up the steps of the bus with their backpacks and pillows in hand to grab seats near their closest friends on the team. Are they excited because they think they have a realistic shot at winning the 2007 National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA) National Championships, or are they simply excited that this demanding season is finally coming to an end? It’s hard to tell right now, but it seems like the former.
When the 24 players, the coach, and the coach’s wife are finally settled on the bus, the bus driver calls out “Who’s in charge here?”
“I’m in charge of nothing here,” coach Kevin Murphy loudly answers. When speaking with his deep, raspy smoker’s voice, the no-nonsense coach commands the attention of the team at all times, but he speaks the truth. He’s here to coach the team on the rink; nothing more, nothing less.
With that, the bus slowly begins to pull away from the Towson University campus, fittingly heading into the sunset toward St. Louis, Missouri.
THE WAITING GAME
A few miles down the road, Jim Tamburino, a 25-year old graduate student and the captain of Towson’s roller hockey team for the past five years, yells out “Cowdell, let me see it!”
Ryan Cowdell, a freshman with childlike dimples and a struggling mustache, steps into the aisle wearing a pair of Speedo-esque briefs over his shorts. He’s the only rookie on the team, so he’s been forced to wear the ridiculous briefs over his clothes for the entire trip. “Beautiful!” yells Tamburino.
“Shake that, baby! Shake that!” yells Keith Huffman, a junior defenseman.
Never refusing an opportunity to dance, Cowdell shakes his stuff for a brief moment in the aisle to the delight of his teammates. “Looking good, baby,” he says confidently.
There is a ton of chatter on the bus and the sounds of laughter and the opening of drinks and bags of chips fill the bus. Stuart Miller, who isn’t one of the fittest players on the team, is devouring a turkey wrap.
“Stu! I heard you ate some cake at the ECRHA meeting! I have photographic evidence!” yells out Roy Pumphrey, another graduate student and the 26-year old assistant captain. “When we get to St. Louis, you better get your running shorts on. You’re doing some running!”
Once the bus gets off the beltway, Huffman pops “Talladega Nights” into the bus’s DVD player and the driver turns down the interior lights. Darkness, then eventually silence, falls over the bus. Within a couple of hours, all that can be heard is the hum of rubber tires on pavement, the shifting of gears, and the soft drone of a few iPods.
Fifteen hours and 862 miles later, the bus arrives at the team’s hotel in St. Louis. The team doesn’t play its first game until 2:15 Wednesday afternoon, which is another 28 hours from now. The waiting game begins again.
In that span, the players relax, socialize, watch a lot of TV, eat a couple of big meals, and get some much needed sleep in their hotel rooms (a welcome luxury after being crammed on a charter bus for what may have felt like three days to some of the players).
The night before their first game, a matchup against the University of North Texas Eagles, some of the veteran players start to get introspective. For some of the guys on the team, this is their third, fourth, or even fifth shot at the national title. And for a few of them, this will be their final shot.
Pumphrey is one of those players. After playing three seasons for the team and finishing his undergraduate degree in 2005, he had thought he was done with the NCRHA. But after taking a year off, Pumphrey has returned to the Tigers to finish what he started.
Sitting by the hotel pool in a blue NCRHA T-shirt, shorts, and a Towson hat, Pumphrey is an imposing figure. Though he is only 5’9”, he is tremendously muscular and fit. A graduate student focusing in Health Science, he was the mastermind behind the team’s strenuous off-ice conditioning program.
While downing a protein bar and a can of soda, Pumphrey speaks candidly about his five years with the Tigers.
“The actual beginning of the program was about five years before me. I was part of the second generation from going to playing recreationally to actually having a competitive team. When I first started playing, we practiced by playing 3-on-3 games with a ball on tennis courts that were about fifteen years old. We’ve gone from that to finishing in the top eight, at least, in the last four years.
“This year is a little different. We’ve had a lot of curveballs this year, more than usual. We could have been in a really good position this year and we shot ourselves in the foot several times. The drama, as a whole, trickles through the team and has a lasting effect.
“I’ve already had one last year. This is last year number two. I came back because we have a good enough team to win and I was able to come back. I could play, so I did. I have spent $1,595 in class fees alone to play, just because I want to win so badly. You play to win, that’s why I play. The expectation is to win the national championship each and every year and nothing less. If you’re not playing for that, you shouldn’t be playing. Winning would be the greatest thing I ever did in my life, bar none.
“We win. Plain and simple, we win. [Teams] should think we’re overconfident. We’re here at nationals for the fifth year, and that’s not a coincidence. It’s the same teams that go every year to Nationals. Why is that? It’s gotta’ be something. Yeah, we’re cocky. Yeah, we’re confident. Are we over-confident? I don’t think so. I don’t think that any of us expect us to roll through everyone.”
THE FIRST GAME
It’s a half hour before the start of the Towson-North Texas game and the Tigers are busy in the locker room preparing for their first round-robin game at Nationals. The team will play in three round-robin games before moving on to single-elimination bracket play.
The players all sit on flat steel benches, getting their gear and their minds ready for the game. One player is sawing a stick down to the preferred length. The starting goalie, Mike Burke, has a saw of his own; he’s doctoring one of his wheels so it spins properly. A few players are tying their skates, heads down in thought, stopping only to have the occasional swig of Red Bull. Pump-up music ranging from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses blares from a stereo. There are three or four separate conversations going on as everyone talks strategy with nearby teammates.
Eventually, the players begin to put on their Towson uniforms. Today, they’re the home team, so they will be wearing their white jerseys along with black, yellow, and gray roller hockey pants. If you’re unfamiliar with roller hockey pants, they resemble something that MC Hammer might have worn back in the day.
Greg Pantaleo, a senior forward, announces that his adrenaline is starting to pump. “Last Nationals,” he explains.
“This is the first step to glory, gentlemen,” says defenseman Chris Harrell, who is another one of the five graduate students on the team.
Coach Murphy slips through the locker room door, not disturbing any of the players. He’s wearing a black Towson pullover, a black hat, khakis, a white dress shirt and a tie. He stands silently by the door, not mentioning a single word. Murphy has coached in the league for years and he knows how to let his veteran players lead the team.
“This is why we signed up, boys. This is why we signed up,” says Tamburino.
Tamburino is the unquestioned leader of the Towson University roller hockey team. He is bright, engaging and passionate. His hard work and dedication over the past five years is the main reason that the Tigers have been to four straight NCRHA Elite Eights.
However, the road that led him to this point has been long and winding. After graduating from high school, Tamburino, a native of Long Island, moved to Nova Scotia to play junior ice hockey. He had hoped to use that experience as a springboard to playing ice hockey in college, but after six months, he was cut from his team. He returned home to New York and considered giving up the game he loves.
Although he didn’t give it up, his goals have significantly changed.
“[Winning the NCRHA title] is the one accomplishment I’d love to get. That’s the reason I’m here. I started a grad program and took two grad classes just so I can try to win this year. It means that much to me that I’m willing to sacrifice a lot of things for it,” Tamburino would later say.
“Roy [Pumphrey] and I had an agreement that if one of us was coming back, the other one was. Chris Harrell and Burke came back. It was something that we all wanted to do and agreed to do. We said we would do everything possible this year to win this year and that if we took the extra step this year, we would get that much closer. We’re getting closer and closer every year, and honestly, it would be the greatest feeling of my life to accomplish that. I never thought roller hockey would make me feel that way.”
The first step toward that elusive NCRHA championship trophy is now only ten minutes away.
Everyone is fully equipped and sitting quietly on the benches of the locker room. Burke is staring down at the ground, chin in his jersey, not moving at all. This may be his last Nationals, and he wants to finally get over the top and make it to the finals.
Tamburino calmly and quietly breaks the silence. “One game at a time,” he says.
“Let’s fuck these guys up! Send them back where they came from!” screams Roy.
“Let’s bring it in boys,” says Harrell, and everyone huddles up around Huffman in the middle of the locker room.
“You know what comes from Texas? Steers and queers! And they don’t have horns!” yells Pumphrey, a reference to the movie “Full Metal Jacket”
“Let’s go boys!” yells Huffman. “Tigers on 3!”
They all file out of the locker room where Tamburino is waiting at the entrance to the rink, giving them a tap on their heads as they step out onto the rink.
The players get a quick three-minute warm-up, performing some standard drills to get their legs going. The buzzer sounds, ending their warm-up and ending their long wait. The time to perform has finally arrived. Has the team truly done everything it could to prepare for this moment?
Before the starters line up for the opening face-off, they all skate back to tap their goalie, Burke, on his leg pads with their sticks.
Both teams line up at the face-off circle, the puck is dropped, and they’re off to the races.
Towson strikes first, taking a 1-0 lead just 51 seconds into the game as Pantaleo buries the rebound off a shot from Dane Houser, his sophomore linemate.
North Texas answers right back to make it 1-1 with 9:07 remaining in the first period.
Thirty-six seconds later, Pantaleo scores his second goal of the game on a wrist shot to take the lead back, but once again, North Texas ties it up moments later.
Houser adds a powerplay goal at the 6:10 mark and Pantaleo scores again seventeen seconds later, recording a hat trick to make the score 4-2, a lead that the Tigers would never surrender.
By the time the first period ended, Towson had registered an impressive 7-2 lead. The game of roller hockey, which is played 4-on-4, is generally higher scoring than ice hockey, but this wild scoring pace is very unusual. Then again, this afternoon’s opponent is easily the weakest challenger that the Tigers will face all tournament.
The Tigers coast to an easy 9-3 victory over the Eagles, but they don’t have much time to rest, as their second round-robin game is in just a few hours.
The players grab a quick bite to eat at Quiznos and head back to the hotel for a power nap. They’re going to need the rest. They’re taking on a familiar foe, the Florida Gators.
THE RIVALRY GAME
It’s hard to imagine that two schools located 1,000 miles apart could have an intense rivalry, but one exists between Towson University and the University of Florida. That’s part of the lure of collegiate roller hockey: any school, big or small, can end up being hated enemies. These two teams have met in bracket play the past three years. Each time, the loser was sent home for good.
In the Elite Eight of the 2004 National Championships, Florida knocked out Towson in a 3-2 overtime thriller.
The following year, the Tigers got their revenge as they sent the Gators packing with a decisive 5-1 victory in the Sweet Sixteen.
Last year, the Tigers again eliminated Florida, this time with a 3-2 overtime victory in the 2006 NCRHA Elite Eight.
Considering the history between the two teams, it’s not surprising that they will meet again in St. Louis, but this match-up isn’t an elimination game so neither team will be going home just yet. That doesn’t mean that these two teams will let up the slightest bit, however.
This is evident even before the drop of the puck.
Well before the start of the game, Tamburino is stretching outside of the Towson locker room, but his pre-game ritual is interrupted by a Florida player who is trying to bait Tamburino into some extra-curricular activities.
“You guys are gonna’ lose,” the Florida player mutters.
Tamburino is definitely not a stranger to this kind of abuse, as he’s one of the most hated players in the NCRHA for his rugged and aggressive style of play. He has been to mix it up from time to time, but at this moment, Tamburino is only focused on the task at hand. He simply turns and looks away, saying nothing. He plans on doing his talking on the rink.
The Towson captain returns to the locker room, where The Game is blaring from the speakers of a stereo. When Coach Murphy enters the locker room, the music is turned off. He’s more vocal before this game than he usually is.
“Guys, listen,” Murphy says. “This team is a pretty quick team. They’re disciplined. Keep your feet moving. Don’t try to skate through three guys. Move the puck and shoot on this goalie.”
“Gentlemen, if you’re going to get up for a game, it’s this one,” adds Harrell.
Milliseconds later, Pumphrey, intense as always, yells “Fuck that! Let’s play our game and fuck these guys up!”
The game starts off like a chess match with both teams playing tentatively and carefully, as if they’re sizing up one another. For the first few minutes of the game, neither team takes any chances because it doesn’t want to be the team that makes the first mistake.
Finally, 5:15 into the game, the Tigers strike on their patented trick play. Tamburino innocently carries the puck from his own end down the left boards. As he swoops in behind the net, the goalie follows him in an attempt to beat him to the right post. The goalie beats Tamburino there, but the Tigers’ captain has already made a discreet little drop pass to Pantaleo, who is wide open on the left post. He bangs the puck into the yawning net to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
Towson scores again two and a half minutes later. Seconds after the Tigers kill off a two-minute Gator power play, sophomore forward Mike Parlon hits Pumphrey, the now-exonerated penalty-taker who has just stepped out of the box, with a long bomb pass. The pass springs Pumphrey on a breakaway, and he buries a backhand between the goalie’s legs to make it 2-0. That would be the score at the end of the first period.
Halfway through the second period, Towson runs its trick play again, but this time it’s from the right side of the rink. Cowdell easily buries the Tamburino pass. 3-0: Towson. Minutes later, Houser adds a power play goal, and the stunned Gators call a timeout.
Florida comes out firing after the timeout and scores a goal 42 seconds later, but Tamburino makes the score 5-1 on a beautiful individual effort in the final minute of the period.
Minutes into the third period, the Gators score a second goal to make the game interesting, but Burke and the Tigers are able to hold the fort the rest of the way. Harrell scores a power play goal with 4:18 remaining to ice a 6-2 Towson victory.
“Huge fucking win, boys,” Houser says to his teammates on the bench.
“We should have been doin’ this all year,” announces Pantaleo.
None of his teammates have a response for that, and the bench becomes silent.
THE BLAME GAME
The Tigers get a big lift heading into their third and final round-robin game against the Eastern Michigan University Eagles, who have also gone 2-0 in round-robin play: Josh Stein, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, is returning from a two-game suspension that carried over from the regional qualifying tournament.
Watching the team from the stands, as you might imagine, has been difficult for the junior forward.
“It was painful not being out there because I wanted to help out and I wish I could have done more. I wanted to be playing and out there, helping my team win,” Stein said, while lying in a bed in his hotel room. “The first game, the team won, but they didn’t look as they should have, and in the second game, they looked great and won 6-2. I’m very excited to get out there.”
It is 7 a.m. Thursday, and the Tigers are already out of bed. There’s a team rule that states that all players must be awake at least two hours before the start of all games. The team grabs a quick continental breakfast and some coffee at the hotel and heads to the rink for the 9 a.m. showdown with the Eagles.
Towson jumps out to an early lead when Pantaleo scores 1:55 into the game. So far, Pantaleo has the hot hand for the Tigers, recording at least one goal in every game and five goals for the tournament.
Eastern Michigan evens the score at 1-1 minutes later, and the first period ends with the score tied.
Towson takes back the lead late in the second period when Harrell rips a wrist shot from the left circle past the Eastern Michigan goaltender for a power play goal.
However, in the third period, the game slowly starts to slip away from the Tigers. Some of the Towson players have been taking extremely long shifts all game long, and their fatigue is starting to show. They stop skating hard and beating their opponents to loose pucks. As a result, the Eagles are dictating the play of the period.
However, the Tigers have a chance to pad their lead when Stein is awarded a penalty shot after he is pulled down from behind on a breakaway.
He slowly skates in on the penalty shot, dangling the puck from left to right and right to left. Right as he puts his head down to make his finishing move, the goaltender springs forward and pokes the puck away with a well-executed poke check.
“I was very excited to be out there, but I didn’t play well,” said Stein after the game. “I had a chance to put the game away, but I missed a penalty shot. I think rust was partially a factor.”
Halfway through the final stanza, Harrell takes a costly interference penalty, and Eastern Michigan takes advantage of the opportunity with just over four minutes left in the game. The score is now tied at two with plenty of time left on the clock.
As the game reaches the final two minutes, the Tigers are completely out of gas and Eastern Michigan has all of the momentum. The Tigers are desperate to take the lead back, but their aggressiveness backfires when they give the Eagles an odd-man break. Vinny Jalaba, an Eagles forward, cashes in on the opportunity to give Eastern Michigan the lead with 1:40 remaining on the clock.
The Eagles add an insurance goal in the closing seconds to seal a 4-2 victory.
Back at the hotel after the game, Pumphrey is extremely frustrated with his teammates after the tough loss.
“We played really good for the first period and played really terrible in the second and stopped skating, and in the third, we were a mess. We could have easily smoked that team. They relied on three guys that scored their goals. Basically, they had one line,” Pumphrey said.
“Somehow, someway, some of us decided they were going to be heroes and play extra long shifts so they could score a goal, and they were tired and couldn’t skate on the rink. And that beat us in the end. If we would have skated hard the whole time, we would have easily beaten that team pretty bad. We could have smoked them.”
Now the team must wait until the seeding for elimination play is announced to determine who they will face in single-elimination bracket play.
In the meantime, the players kill some time, calm their nerves, and fill their stomachs with some pizza back at the hotel. The greasy pizzas, ten in all, are enough to do the trick. They have already forgotten about this morning’s loss and they’re joking around and laughing.
The seeding is announced around 10 p.m. The Tigers have a favorable bracket (the overwhelming tournament favorite, Lindenwood University, is on the other side of the bracket), but they first must get past Florida International University, a relative unknown in college roller hockey, on Friday afternoon.
The Tigers are already looking past that game to who they might face down the road in the championship. If they can beat FIU and then potentially Eastern Michigan, a favorite to win their first-round game, the Tigers will be in the Final Four again.
“I am excited about the bracket. I am confident that we will do very well and I think we can go all the way to the finals. We’ve never seen FIU, but based on who they played and who they lost to, we believe we can beat them,” Tamburino says. “It’s important that we don’t overlook them. Just concentrate on this game, go out and beat them, then focus on the next.”
Cowdell, the baby-faced freshman forward, came to Towson University not only because of its education program, but for its roller hockey program. He was heavily recruited by Towson and by the University of Connecticut, but in the end, he knew Towson was the right choice.
“[Delaware] was my first choice, but I didn’t get accepted,” Cowdell explained. “I talked to Jim Tamburino. He emailed me and said, ‘You should look at Towson.’ I applied, got it, visited, and it was love at first sight. I applied because of roller hockey, and when I found out the education department was good, I definitely wanted to come.”
Games like tomorrow’s games are the reason that Cowdell is at Towson, but he is both excited and nervous for Friday’s game.
“First game, I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous. It’s definitely nerve-wracking. But now, it’s just hockey and I’m going to go out and play and have fun. I want to go out and win it for the other guys,” he explains. “They’re great guys. I don’t want to be the one who blows it. I want to win for them.”
THE GUT-CHECK GAME
In the locker room before the Sweet Sixteen game against the FIU Golden Panthers, the Towson players are very loose. They’re making jokes, chatting it up, and laughing. It seems like they’re confident that they will be able to dispose of the Golden Panthers and move on to the next round.
The iPod stereo system finishes up another up-beat track, but instead of routinely switching to the next pump-up song, it eerily selects at random the audio from last year’s loss to Michigan State in the Final Four.
Welcome to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Towson Tigers take on the . . .
Burke quickly skips ahead to the next track, but from that point on, the locker room was ominously and solemnly silent.
Coach Murphy enters the locker room for his pre-game speech. He makes sure that he hammers home his main point: the Tigers should not overlook FIU.
“Guys, this is the first game in bracket play. If everyone plays to their potential, this game will be a lot easier. Whatever you do, DO NOT take this team lightly,” he says calmly, but sternly. “This is do or die for us, so we have to take it seriously out there. Play like you guys have for the last couple years.”
Things don’t start well for the Tigers.
Stein takes an early roughing penalty thirty-two seconds into the game, and the Golden Panthers quickly take advantage when Ben Miller buries a one-timer from the right face-off dot to give FIU the 1-0 lead.
The teams exchange chances for most of the first period, but the Golden Panthers capitalize again when Alejandro Ortiz sends a wrist shot past Burke for the two-goal lead.
The Tigers, already in a hole, need a goal before the end of the period to get back in the game. So what do they do? They run their favorite play on their unsuspecting opponents. With five seconds left in the first, Pantaleo slips Tamburino’s pass into the net and it’s 2-1 FIU after one period.
Towson’s momentum from Pantaleo’s goal carried into the second period as the Tigers are completely dominating the Golden Panthers. They are firing shots at FIU goalie Carlos Novoa from all angles, but none of them can find the back of the net. Finally, five minutes into the period, Harrell gets one past Novoa to tie the game at 2-2.
The Tigers, threatening to blow the game wide open with another goal, continue to pepper Novoa. He makes several key saves and the Tigers help him out with a few missed wide-open nets. With less than two minutes remaining in the period and Novoa seemingly on the verge of passing out due to exhaustion, Pumphrey takes a costly roughing penalty that kills the Towson momentum.
With nine seconds left in the period, Miller strikes again on the power play, giving the Golden Panthers the lead back and sucking the life out of the Towson squad.
At the onset of the final period, the Golden Panthers now look like a team that thinks it can take out a roller hockey powerhouse and the Tigers look like a team that’s sensing its season slipping away.
The Tigers look desperate. They’re hesitant, sloppy and out of position. They’re one bad break away from completely combusting.
Three minutes and ten seconds in, that bad break happens.
The Golden Panthers break into the Towson zone and Ortiz fires a snap shot that misses the net high and wide, but the puck takes a crazy bounce off the glass behind the net, and careens back toward the net, off the back of Burke’s leg, and into the net.
The Tigers are now facing a two-goal deficit and the clock is not their ally.
As the time ticks down in the game, some of the Towson players still aren’t showing any urgency, lackadaisically skating up and down the rink.
Tamburino, who is usually pretty calm on the bench, explodes.
“Guys on this team have heart and soul and would bust their asses out there!” he yells at his teammates on the rink. “If you’re not going to skate, get off the rink!”
With 5:46 left in the game, FIU scores again, pushing its lead to 5-2. Murphy calls a timeout. His players sullenly sit on the bench around him with their heads down. After fifteen seconds, which feel like fifteen minutes, he finally speaks.
“You guys should not be losing to this team,” he says loudly. “You can either roll over and play dead, or you guys can come back and win this game.”
Play resumes and the Tigers show signs of life for the first time in over a period. When Pantaleo scores his second goal of the game with 3:07 remaining, the Towson bench erupts. With the score 5-3 and momentum on their side, the Tigers can get back into this hockey game.
Ten seconds later, FIU skates down the rink and puts another puck past Burke to make it 6-3. The Towson bench goes silent, and you can feel the air slip out of the team again. That should do it.
But some of the Tigers refuse to give in. Five seconds later, right off of the ensuing face-off, Cowdell grabs the puck, flies down the rink, and fires a shot through Novoa’s five-hole to make the score 6-4.
Towson’s bench goes wild again. This rollercoaster-ride of a game must be nauseating for the players, Murphy, and the Towson fans in attendance.
FIU takes a penalty with 59 seconds left and the Tigers pull the goalie, giving the team an extra attacker for a 5-on-3 advantage.
In the waning seconds of the game, the Towson players desperately shoot the puck on net, hoping for the bounce that goes their way. They chase after the puck when it is cleared by their opponents into their zone and they skate back down the rink and try again. This cycle repeats a few times, but their bounce never comes.
The final buzzer sounds.
For some, career over.
The players skate into the locker room, take off their helmets and gloves, and sit down. Murphy enters the locker room and everyone stops what they’re doing.
“For two and a half years, you guys were a team . . . but at some point this year, you guys fell apart,” he says. “When I came here to coach, I told you guys that if you stuck together, you could beat anyone. That was a horrible display of roller hockey.”
Then silence. No one moves.
After a few minutes, Harrell softly says “This is my last time in this uniform. I don’t want to take it off.”
As their teammates begin to get remove their equipment, Tamburino and Harrell take forever to get undressed. They leave their white Towson jerseys on while they take off the rest of their equipment.
Usually, when undressing after a hockey game, the order of equipment removal goes as follows: helmet, gloves, jersey, elbow pads, skates, pants, shin guards, hockey girdle, and then jockstrap. After a game, the jerseys are soaking wet and heavy, with a distinct, awful smell. Yet, these two players haven’t taken them off. These two players don’t want this to be the last time they play in their Towson jerseys. These two players don’t ever want to take them off.
Tamburino sits silently in his jersey, his jock strap, and white tube socks that stretch up to his knee caps. His head is down. He may be crying. It’s hard to tell. Murphy is also silent, and also has his head down. He is chewing on a piece of gum, probably craving a cigarette. All of the players sit in street clothes, not saying a word. One by one, they slowly start to gather their things and file out of the locker room. Parlon is the first to go, and others follow his lead. All that can be heard in the locker room are the sounds of zippers, long signs, and the swish-swoosh of the black Towson University warm-up suits.
Murphy and a few of the graduating players remain in the locker room. They haven’t moved in 20 minutes. Eventually, Murphy breaks the silence.
“C’mon guys, let’s get out of here,” he says softly, his voice almost cracking when he speaks. They would have sat there for hours if he hadn’t said something.
The veterans exchange handshakes and hugs, without exchanging a word, before exciting the locker room with heads held high.
A few days after the Tigers returned to campus, at the apartment in Cockeysville that they share with Burke and Huffman, Tamburino and Pumphrey were able to evaluate what went wrong.
“The first word that comes to mind is disappointment. I don’t know if we took them likely or what, ‘cause we got prepared and we said that we weren’t going to take them lightly, but at the same time, I think that we were anxious to play the games further on and it cost us that game. We played terrible as a team. It was actually embarrassing . . . and very disappointing. Guys definitely overlooked that team. We didn’t expect them to work as hard as they did and they came out a lot quicker than us and they beat us,” Tamburino regretfully said.
“I honestly believed from the beginning that there was something about this group . . . we were very talented but we didn’t have that same drive or that hunger that Towson used to have. We used to be anxious to win games and anxious to achieve something. This year, it just seemed like guys were just expecting to win instead of going out there and earning those wins. We tried to find that fire, but we never did.”
Pumphrey also felt the same sense of disappointment as his longtime teammate.
“Some of the guys on the team looked past that game,” Pumphrey added bluntly. “We didn’t play hard until the end of it, and by then, you’re already out of any type of rhythm and out of any type of flow and you have absolutely no chance of getting it back. It’s very, very disappointing, but that’s the way it goes.”
This is the end of an era for Pumphrey, Harrell, Pantaleo, and Burke. But for Tamburino, this may not be it just yet. The heart and soul of the Tigers desperately wants to lace up his skates and throw on his #6 jersey one last time.
“I’m hoping to be back next year, to be honest. If everything works out with the grad assistantship [I’m applying for], you’ll probably be seeing me. I’ll know in a couple of weeks. If not, I can look for a full-time job and take a few classes just to play out my eligibility, which I would love to do. I’m crossing my fingers. I would love to spend one more year and go out the right away. I don’t want to go out like this. We can do it all over next year, make some changes, and go on one last run. I’d rather go out knowing that we did it the right way.”
Whether he comes back next year or not, Tamburino has always done it the right way, even if he doesn’t have a big, shiny, gold NCRHA championship trophy to prove it. He may not realize it yet, but he has the unwavering respect and admiration of his teammates that look to him for inspiration, and that’s worth more than gold.
This first appeared in the September/2007 issue of Hockey
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