Monday, March 7, 2016

Greatness calls, and my Eagles answer

Our Eagles dared to fly high … and we kept soaring till we reached the mountaintop.

By early December, I was pretty sure our Scholars Academy middle-school girls' basketball squad was the best team in the Charlotte Gastonia Athletic Association. We showed it by going 16-2 during the season, and we clinched it by dominating our three playoff opponents. The combined score of those three victories: 103-37.

One year after going to the championship game for the first time in school history – but losing – we took care of our unfinished business. We won Scholars’ first regular-season conference title and then, on Tuesday, March 1, we captured our school’s first tournament championship.

Naturally, we celebrated on the court after our historic, satisfying victory. It was spontaneous and beautiful and even more joyous than I had imagined it would be. Hugs, high-fives and handshakes were plentiful as the 11 girls, their parents, their siblings, several students and many faculty members basked in the thrill of victory. The girls and I posed with the trophies as moms and dads snapped hundreds of pictures.

Because we had tied for the regular-season title and then lost a coin flip, we had to play the game on the road, and it was surreal celebrating our victory on “foreign soil.” There our opponents were, in their home gym, and they had to watch us carry on. I stole a few glances at the Countryside Montessori players, and I remembered the empty feeling we had a year earlier when we were the ones who had to force smiles as we posed with the runner-up trophy.

The 11 girls and I took a brief break from the on-court merriment, going into a conference room to celebrate in private. That, too, was a fun, rambunctious scene of table pounding and hoots. One of our captains, Olivia, interrupted the hollering with: “Guys … guys … I have something to say!” For a moment she got a serious look on her face and then she smiled and whispered: 

“We won the championship!” 

And everybody yelled and screamed and pounded the table again. Too much fun!!

We then went back onto the court to celebrate some more. Finally, players and families started filtering out of the gym.

My son Ben was visiting from Chicago, and he, my wife Roberta and I drove to a nearby restaurant. I had trouble winding down from the excitement, even as I enjoyed a craft beer from – appropriately enough -- Victory Brewing Company. Ben, who specifically timed his visit in hopes of seeing us in the title game, talked about the team and the season with me for about an hour. It was special to share this culmination of three years of hard work with my loved ones.

The warm glow of triumph continued for several days of congratulatory emails, texts and Facebook posts. Finally, on Saturday, we had our team party.

Compared to the wild post-game celebration, the party was relatively tame. Our gracious hosts (parents of our standout guard, Ritika) served up food and soft drinks. As the girls enjoyed hanging out together at their final team function, I chatted easily with their parents. Because I have been the coach since the 2013-14 season, I have gotten to know many of the parents quite well; three of their daughters (Ritika, Olivia, Celeste) were with me for all three years, and three others for two years (Sholeh, Beijul, Charlotte).

Then it came time for my annual post-season speech. I said something about each girl, recapping her contributions to the team, and also handed out the awards.

Our Heroes

Celeste, an 8th-grade tri-captain, had the “monster season” I had predicted she would have. Tall and very athletic – a rare combination at this age – she developed a practically automatic 10- to 15-foot jumper from the high post. She led us in scoring in each playoff game and she dominated the championship contest, finishing with half of our 28 points. She was a rock on defense all season, routinely registering double-digit blocks and rebounds. Celeste scored 168 points, 100 more than in either of her first two years, and was our co-MVP.

Sholeh progressed rapidly from ex-soccer-playing basketball neophyte as a 7th-grader to All-Conference performer as an 8th-grader. Once she decided she loved basketball, she worked tirelessly to improve. She developed a picture-perfect jumper and outstanding layup form; the latter was especially useful because her aggressive defense at the top of our 2-3 zone created numerous layup attempts. Scholars doesn’t keep individual athletic records, but it’s hard to believe any previous girl had scored more than Sholeh’s 212 points this season. A tri-captain and co-MVP, she fought through a bad cold to score 8 points in the championship game.

Olivia, another 8th-grader, has gracefully grown into her height. She sported a nice outside shot and became a reliable interior defender and rebounder. Mostly, though, she was our calming influence on offense. Whether I used her at wing, on the high-post or at point, she had a knack for sizing up the defense, making good passes and minimizing turnovers. Because she made her teammates better, she had a major impact even when she didn’t score much herself. Olivia was our Offensive Player of the Year.

Charlotte, another 8th-grader, was a tiny but tough player two years earlier, and she thankfully returned to the team after taking a one-year break from basketball. She improved, oh, a bazillion percent from 6th grade and was no longer tiny. She was as good a defender as I have coached, equally comfortable playing man-to-man, hassling the opposition at the top of our zone or defending the baseline. Particularly lethal at the point of our devastating 1-2-1-1 press, Charlotte was an obvious choice as our Defensive Player of the Year.

Ritika, a third-year player who joined the program as a 5th-grader, is the best 3-point shooter in the league by a mile: 20 made treys the last two seasons. She also has become an outstanding defender with quick hands and a nose for the basketball. And she plays both wing and point guard equally well. Unselfish almost to a fault and respected by her teammates for her tenacity and intelligence, she received the Coach’s Award for Leadership.

Deirdre, a 5th-grader I call “Rookie,” was only supposed to be the team manager but she earned a promotion in December and quickly moved up the depth chart. She finished as our highest scorer off the bench, and I am very excited about her future … but I’ll probably have to come up with a new nickname for her next year!

Eighth-graders Beijul and Soenika and 7th-graders Kaylee, Emma and Jackie were valuable reserves. I gave everybody plenty of playing time during the regular season, but I did explain to them that the starters would get most of the court time in the playoffs. I asked them to be ready to give us short bursts of energy when they got into playoff games, and I’m thrilled to say that’s what each of them did.

At our party, I reminded the girls and their parents that we had lost our three leading scorers from the previous season, so we needed our returning players to improve dramatically. And did they ever!

Celeste, Olivia and Ritika each scored more points this season than they had in their first two years combined. And Sholeh, our top returning scorer with 72 points in 2014-15, nearly tripled her output. Add in the return of a vastly improved Charlotte and the outstanding work by our reserves, and we had so much going for us that not even the coach could screw things up! We outscored our opponents 706-279.

Not bad for a bunch of “highly gifted” kids at a small charter school that is tucked inside a business park down the block from Costco. We have only a small practice gym and play our games at a church several miles away. My first year, the top returning scorer quit the day before our first practice because she decided to join the Mock Trial team instead. In 2014-15, one player missed practices because of her involvement in Science Olympiad, and another missed games this season to compete in Robotics tournaments. All schools claim academics come first; at Scholars Academy, they really mean it.

I concluded my speech by saying this team had set a standard that future generations of Eagles will be hard-pressed to match. And I got a little choked up when I noted how strange it will be to look out on the court at our first practice next season and not see Soenika, Beijul, Charlotte, Sholeh and, especially, three-year starters Olivia and Celeste.

After I was done with my (too) long soliloquy, Olivia's mother Jen, our "Team Mom," presented me with a framed, signed team photo and said several nice things about how lucky Scholars was to have me. Obviously, I have been every bit as lucky, and more.

This is my first head-coaching job, and I was as green as most of the players back in 2013-14. I like to think they have learned a thing or two from me, yes, but I know I have learned a ton from them. We grew together, which is why reaching the mountaintop with them was such a special, emotional experience for me.

While I believe I will return for a fourth season at Scholars Academy, I honestly can't say with 100% certainty what the future holds for me in this crazy profession. I almost left for a high school JV job last fall, but the voice in my head said to stay with the Eagles and take care of unfinished business. I have zero regrets.

As for the six 8th-graders who have done so much for our program, I am supremely confident they will be stars in life and will contribute amazing things to society. It makes me feel good that we shared a mutual basketball experience none of us ever will forget.

Still, I admit I also feel a tinge of sadness. I am proud of my Eagles, and I am honored to have been their coach, but I hate having to say good-bye to these incredible champions.

I know that’s how life works, especially in sports, but that doesn’t make it any easier.