The men's and women's NCAA tournaments are getting most of the nation's basketball fan attention right now, but there is more hoop madness going on in America's smaller gyms and arenas. I'm talking about high school basketball playoffs. They are just as physically and emotionally intense as the big-stage versions and a whole cheaper to attend. If your local high school is still in the hunt, go. Cheer. Witness the show. Support their commitment.
Forty-seven years ago I played on a high school team with my friends. I wasn't the star, but I was a starter and captain and point guard on a team that went 32-6 for the season. We won our final 23 consecutive games and eeked out a one-point victory for the 3-A Texas Catholic Interscholastic League championship.
That probably sounds stupid or boring to you if you aren't a jock. Who remembers high school? How important is it in the grand scheme of your life? Okay, I'll grant you all of those points. Then I'll tell you that I can recall details of that year better than I remember just about anything else from my childhood. Sounds, smells, the name of the hot cheerleader from Lancaster High School (Johnnie Ginger!!), the pulsing roar at the championship game in the St. Mary's University gym in San Antonio, filled with people, more of them for San Antonio Central Catholic than for my team. The mad rush of our fans and my family onto the floor after we won. Being scooped up onto friends' shoulders at center court and paraded around amidst mayhem and screaming and sweaty, steaming, joyful teammates. We worked our asses off for that trophy, that moment, that odd and crazy high school round-ball ecstasy. That kind of fun burns itself into your memory. I loved it.
This past Saturday night, I watched one of our local high school boys' teams win a tight battle for the NorCal Division V championship in a packed gym against a gritty squad from Lodi. Watsonville's St. Francis Sharks won their 23rd consecutive game with a strong team performance, pulling it out in the last two minutes after a close, intense contest. They earned the right to travel to Sacramento this Friday to play the SoCal champs for their division's California state title. It will be a chance to win their final game of the season. Only one team gets to do that this time of year. Only one team gets the crown. Good luck. Go Sharks!
The reason I attended the game was because one of my ex-students is on the team. His name is Riley. He doesn't have the varsity experience that some of the other kids have and he doesn't get to play a lot. He is a brilliant student and a lead actor in school and community plays, quite used to pressure situations and acquiring honors. I think it is hard for him to sit on the bench and watch, but he is always into the game mentally and cheers hard for his friends and teammates.
On Friday, Riley replaced a starter who was in foul trouble for a few minutes of tight action. He found himself open from the three-point line and sank it. You could feel his personal joy as he clenched his fists with a brief "YES!" celebration before sprinting back on defense. There he held his own, boxing out his man diligently on the boards. On the other end, Lodi pressed and trapped most of the game, so receiving the ball, he immediately a drew double team a few times, a crazy place to be if you are not used to it. But Riley held up under the pressure quite well, only making one error, arguably not his fault, when a tired teammate failed to present him with a clear passing lane. Overall, in his brief appearance in a highly contested game, he made a valuable, positive contribution to the win. In a team sport, as a bench player, knowing your role, and being ready to respond, is just as important as being a star.
Result? A NorCal championship and a chance at the big prize: forever memories of high school glory.
Hey! Don't forget your biggest cheerleaders. They are important, too :-)
Peace, Love, and Take State!