Smack me if you’ve heard this story before! ๐Ÿ™‚

It would appear that this team is growing on me because here I am, writing my Slice of Live (late, again), talking about my basketball team. But then again, it’s that time of the year and I enjoy this part of my job! ๐Ÿ™‚

Anyway, a couple of years ago, I was writing about my team, and wrote about our last game of our regular season. In that blog, we lost the last game our season, and our leader cried on the bench. It was shocking, but yet, not because she played (plays varsity now) with such passion and force, so see that emotion made me feel better about our team. If our leader can cry, it’s ok for all of us to show that emotion. I think we lost twice after that game, finishing the season with a ridiculous winning percentage.

So, fast forward two years to this year’s version of eighth grade: not as confident, not as cohesive, and not as poised. We were playing a powerful team from our area, one that consistently wins conference championships and is always on the verge of making the state basketball tournament. They start their kids out very young and are always a team to worry about, even in down years. This year’s crop had beaten my crew (as 7th graders) by 40 in their regular season game and by 20 at a tournament.

#ouch

Our first encounter was early in November at a tournament, our very first game of the season. The girls were petrified, and I was not looking forward to the game because we’d convinced ourselves we were in for another butt whooping. I honestly couldn’t tell you how we’d do because we were really good practicing against ourselves, but that first game is always a white knuckle affair!

#butterfliesinmystomach

And wouldn’t you know it, we played them toe to toe. With five minutes left in the game, we gave up the lead and couldn’t get it back, losing by four point. The head games they’d played with themselves came back to bite us as we threw the ball away, took rushed shots, and just lost our composure. The parents sat back and gave a collective “damn” at our effort. Their coach approached one of the tournament directors, complimenting our team on how well we played. Needless to say, even with a loss, the girls were pretty pumped. And why not??ย  A loss like this almost felt like a victory.

#almost

Guess which game was circled on my calendar? ๐Ÿ™‚ We’d talked about changing the mindset, that we need to enter the court each and every time with the attitude that we’d win. Not cocky, but confident. We’d started to gel a little bit, but in short bursts of “who the heck is this team”, not the sustained effort. Was I worried about this game? Heck yes! I’ve been on the receiving end of many, MANY throttling by this team. We COULD win, but would we?

So, we played. And oh what an EPIC game it was. We came out, got behind by six points in the first quarter, but limited them to three points over the last five minutes of the first half. As we walked in our meeting place for half time, I knew we had a chance. Our team was scrapping, not backing down, and causing some major frustrations. The other coach had shared he had seven girls who could “play with almost anyone, but the talent dropped off quickly”. Hee hee, I have a team who play together. I played my entire bench during that first half, everyone, regardless of talent. Now, I shortened my bench of after half time, but the girls know I’ll work them in. That’s why when we play, I can rely on almost all of them. Trust is a big deal, and I trust they won’t let me down.

As the second half started, we battled, we fought, and showed a grit that I LOVE in my teams. They wouldn’t back down to being bullied the floor. Two girls in particular, J & K, pushed our effort. (They are both going to read this, so I’m going to heap on the compliments right now!) They both lead, but in different ways. J leads through some sweet moves and a willingness to do what is asked. Play point guard? She’ll do it. Guard the post? Heck yes! Play in a calm, yet fierce manner? That’s J. K, is a ball of never ending energy. She doesn’t have a pretty shot, just this kick with her free throws, but yet, she’s ALWAYS near the basketball. Need a rebound? Somehow there’s K, sneaking in! Strong defense? K isn’t afraid to bang around with girls much bigger than her! Sometimes, she’s over aggressive, but in the end, our team thrives on her energy.

These two made play after play during the second half. Steals, rebounds, block outs, the little things that make good teams great. And last night, we were, we were a great team. AND, it got under the skin of our rivals. Each time there was a foul there were words and arms up in the air like “it wasn’t me”. Gradually, they started to unravel. Over the back fouls because K was blocking out. A three point play when J went hard to the basket, and suddenly it was over time.

#whattheheck

We played a team that beat my girls last year by 40 point to a 25 – 25 tie. As the girls ran off the court, smiles on their faces, we had a quick talk: finish this, bring this win home. They are rattled, you are not. And they did just that, when the stress level went up, I called time out and talked nothing about basketball, only about how proud I was of the effort and what we needed next. During that time out, J says, “I might start crying on the floor,” to which I said, “I might too, at home!”ย  That got a smile.

Finally, after a second (yes, second) technical foul sealed the game, we got to shake hands and go talk. Ask I’m talking, I look over, and there’s J with tears. I look a K, and suddenly she’s got tears. Tears of joy. Tears of relief. Tears that tell me, yet again, damn these girls leave everything on the floor (now I’m getting misty-eyed, thank you two!). Their teammates rallied around them, give them hugs and high fives. Me? I beamed. To see that raw emotion again, but in victory was a tremendous privilege! They worked so hard and between the two of them, they helped will their team to a win I don’t think they truly believed they could get until it was right in front of them.

I’ve coached fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls for 17 of the 19 years I’ve been here. I’ve been involved in a couple hundred games easily, and without a doubt, this was the most intense game I’ve coached. Seeing how hard my team played, how hard they cheered for each other, and the reactions of both players and parents after the game, this game meant a lot to many people. I was just happy to be a small part of something much bigger than me!

We will carry this around for a long time. It’s a defining moment for this team, one that they won’t soon forget. To say they won their last home game they’ll ever play at the middle school, and won it against one of the tougher teams they’ll play, that says a lot! For those who will go onto high school, they can bring this up as inspiration when they are down. For those who won’t continue to play, it will be a fond memory, that will fade with time, but hopefully, that feeling won’t.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading the rambling of a middle aged coach who simply loves what he does. This girls make it worth while. J and K, your emotion helps me see how much this means to you. Thank you for sharing it with us because that’s not always who you are. That’s a big step into being leaders, showing that emotion that tells everyone “yup, I’m invested in this team.”

And for the rest of you yahoos who are reading this from school, four games left, all winnable, all within out grasp. The question is, are you willing to reach outside of your comfort zone to grab them?

#areyouazootigerorjungletiger