February 21, 2008
by Chris Feeney
Finishing the season with no one left to beat. That is a feeling I can only imagine. Iím not alone in my lack of experience in this emotion. In Missouri basketball just 10 teams finish the year knowing what it is like to be the champion, to close out the season with a victory.
That means that more than 500 teams each year go home dealing with defeat. Thatís not saying these teams arenít winners, that they did not make wonderful achievements throughout the year. It simply is a statistic to reinforce the comment that very, very few folks get the opportunity to go out on top.
As a player, I never got a sniff of this emotion. Back in the day, my talented high school teams in Kirksville never could get over the hurdle of the district tournament, falling short in the district title game my final two years.
Iím sad to admit that I had little idea of what I was missing out on. That was several years ago, so I canít honestly recall how I felt. But Iím certain that I was unaware of what could have been.
Over the past several years my wife and I have started an annual tradition to the state playoffs in Columbia. The trek is made in the middle of March as we gear up for the hoops season crescendo. We get to experience first hand the start of the end, as high school closes out its season while we prepare for the same scenario at the college level to be followed by the NBA.
Personally that trip to Columbia is the highlight of the culmination of the roundball year. I think that all boils down to the idea of one team coming from amidst the ranks of 80 to 130 other teams in their class to claim the title of state champion. These kids, are just that, kids. They are athletes, but they are also students, classmates, friends, sons and daughters and so much more. That makes their achievement so amazing.
One team of eight to 15 players gets to take the court at the end of the final game and be honored by the fans at Mizzou Arena as they receive the state championship trophy and the individual medals. They are serenaded by applause from a crowd that has come from all over to support in their march toward this giant accomplishment. For the smaller schools, the ones who arenít there year in and year out, they can see at this moment what this meant to their community as a whole, as the crowd sitting up in the stands decked out in school colors far exceeds the ranks of classmates and parents. I can remember watching LaPlata play last year in the finals thinking that the entire town must be empty, because there had to be 2,000 people in red rooting on the Bulldogs.
Over the past years I have had so much fun taking in these games. But I canít help but wonder what it would feel like to be there wearing the blue and white hometown colors, cheering on a Scotland County team.
I wish our kids could travel down to Columbia each year and experience the atmosphere. I canít help but believe a day or two at the state championships could inspire these youngsters to work a little harder to try to get back to that atmosphere as a player.
I watched Clever, which only had eight players dressed out, nearly outrun the competition. Then there was the crowd response, not once, but twice when both of Westranís all-state performers, Kayla Rice and Becca Schemmer, left the game with injuries only to come hobbling back out of the locker room to help their team come from behind and advance to the championship game.
But there was plenty to be learned as well. One could witness that a single player doesnít make a team, and that bad attitudes can sink a ship as fast if not faster than turnovers and missed shots. The education also brought knowledge of the fact that while a teamís star may not have the best game of their life, that only means there is an opportunity for his or her teammates to step up and fill that void. On more than one occasion, we saw players that werenít normally their teamís number one option, come up with big games to lift their squads.
While in Columbia this weekend I watched local Gary Miller be honored with his teammates from the 1988 Final Four team from North Harrison. Twenty years later Gary will still tell you that the experience is one he will never forget.
I wish Iíd had the chance to experience all of this earlier in life. I donít know if I could have helped my team create memories like those that Gary relived this weekend, but I can guarantee I would have tried a lot harder to get there if I knew then what I know now.