Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Destiny Calls ... And My Champions Answer!

The questions have been answered ... and the final answer my Scholars Academy Eagles delivered was both resounding and sweet:

We STILL are the champions, my friend ... because we kept on fighting till the end!

To get back to the top, we had to overcome mild concussions sustained by three players. Our captain and point guard, Ritika, indisputably the best player in the league, was sidelined for four games down the stretch, including our first playoff contest. Our starting center, Mary Kate, missed two games, as did our first player off the bench, Emma. In addition, another key player had to deal with an off-the-court issue much of the season.

We entered the season as an extremely inexperienced team; four of the five players who returned from the championship squad had played only small roles in 2015-16. Each of the six newcomers had never played competitive basketball.

And yet these feisty, fantastic athletes stuck together as closely as any group I've coached, swept their way through the playoffs (outscoring our three opponents, 77-40) and earned the right to hoist the Charlotte Gastonia Athletic Association championship trophy again.

They then took the opportunity to blast their coach with Silly String, and I didn't mind the mess one bit!

Rebuilding ... Or Retooling?

Accomplishing something that had never been done is always heady stuff. When the girls captured the first CGAA basketball title in school history last year, the feeling was incredible. Actually, I should say, "feelings."

I felt exhilaration and pride, of course. I also felt relief, because those Eagles were so tall and athletic and experienced and talented that I sometimes worried that only the coach could hold them back. And naturally, I had bittersweet feelings, too. Six of the 11 players were 8th-graders, including four of our best players ever, and I was sad my time coaching them had ended. We had been through a lot together while growing the program from scratch.

At our season-ending party a year ago, several parents talked in end-of-an-era tones. The dreaded "R-word" - rebuilding - was uttered more than once. The parents were nice about it; they weren't saying we were doomed to be terrible or anything like that. They simply were acknowledging what seemed obvious: We were losing several proven performers, and those girls would be leaving behind a team with a lot of question marks.

How can we replace the standouts who graduated? Who will emerge as leaders, both on and off the court? How much will the returning players improve? Will any newcomers make an impact? Will we have good team chemistry? Will the new group respond to coaching the same way the departing players did over the years? Will we be athletic enough and determined enough to implement our aggressive, attacking system? Will the coach be able to adapt and adjust as necessary?

I would be lying if I told the parents that I was sure we would go back-to-back, but I did say that I thought we would have the best player in the league, that at least a couple of our other players would become major contributors, that we would continue to be the hardest-working and most aggressive team in the league, and that we would be very competitive.

Hey, even I can be right sometimes - and I'm glad that this was one of those occasions!

Ritika exceeded even my high expectations, 6th-grader Deirdre emerged as a big-time scorer, Jackie had a remarkable second half of the season, Kaylee was our defensive catalyst, and several others made significant contributions.

It all added up to a 15-2 record, a third straight appearance in the title game and another raucous championship celebration.

I Am Not Worthy

A few days after winning the title, our team gathered again for our postseason party.

I have been at Scholars - a charter school for "highly gifted" students and the No. 1-ranked elementary school in North Carolina, according to a recent study - for four years. Many of these parents have been with me for multiple seasons. In the case of Emma, Mary Kate and Maddie, I was coaching the younger sisters of previous Eagle standouts. The parents and I are comfortable around each other, and they have always been very supportive. One after another, they voiced their gratitude, and it was so nice to hear all those kind words.

After I spoke at length about each of the team's 11 players and revealed our four award winners, Ritika pulled up a chair for me in front of the TV and started an 8-minute video she had made. In it, this year's 8th-graders and stars from previous Scholars seasons spoke about how much I had meant to them.

See the video HERE.

What an amazing tribute. In all of my years on this earth, I don't think anybody has ever made me feel more special. It was all I could do to keep the water works from flowing.

It would not be an exaggeration to call it one of the great nights of my life.

Our Heroes

Front Row (L to R): Kaylee, Jackie, Emma.
Second Row: Ayushi, Meeta, Harshitha, Ritika, Deirdre, Maddie.
Back Row: Adriana, Mary Kate, Coach Mike
Ritika is the only girl to have played all four seasons for me and leaves Scholars as the No. 2 all-time scorer. As a tiny 5th-grader in 2014, she scored the final 4 points to deliver an improbable playoff victory over a team that had defeated us twice that season. Over the ensuing years, she just kept getting better and better and better. As a 6th-grader, she was our first player off the bench, made nine 3-pointers and was one of the main reasons we reached the title game for the first time in school history. She moved into the starting lineup as a 7th-grader, made 11 more treys, and finished third on the team in scoring. And this season, she led us in scoring average (8.5 points), hit 9 more from downtown, kept our offense organized, and led the world in steals at the top of our active 2-3 zone. When her mother texted me the morning of the semifinal game to say Ritika had been medically cleared from her concussion, I immediately told my wife that we were going to win the championship. Ritika will always remember the half-court shot she swished at the final buzzer of a decisive victory - it was NOT luck, as she practices that shot constantly. I, however, will most fondly remember the final basket she scored in a Scholars uniform because of its importance and its style. Our championship game opponent had stolen momentum and had cut a 14-point deficit to 7 with a few minutes to go. Ritika took an inbound pass, used several crossover dribbles to weave her way through defenders, and finished with a left-handed layup that clinched our second straight title. Most high school seniors can't pull off a play like that! For all of her talent and determination, the thing that stands out about Ritika is that nobody who has played for me has loved playing basketball as much as she does. It's fitting that she is in the center of the photo above, holding the championship trophy. Naturally, she won our award for Most Valuable Player.

Deirdre was supposed to be our manager last season, when she was in 5th grade, but she did so well in practice that I promoted her to the active roster. By season's end, she was our top scorer off the bench. Over the summer, I went to see her AAU team play a couple of games, and I knew she would be one of the best players in our league as a 6th-grader. She had grown taller, and her game had grown significantly to include post moves and aggressive dribble-drives on offense, and blocked shots on defense. She led us in scoring with 130 points - the third-highest total during my time as coach - and several of our victories were spurred by her dominating performances. She had one of the biggest plays in the championship game: After our opponent had scored two straight baskets to pull within 3 points, Deirdre grabbed an offensive rebound and banked in a 10-footer just before the halftime horn to give us more breathing room. In addition to being a starting wing for us, she regularly played point guard  on offense and center on defense when both Ritika and Mary Kate were getting some rest. I have been fortunate to coach several talented players, and I correctly predicted that a few of them would become all-time greats for us. With Deirdre, the ceiling is so high that I won't even hazard to guess how good she will be. She earned the Coach's Award for All-Around Excellence.

Jackie was a role player who averaged about a point per game for last year's team. If you watch the video tribute, you'll hear her say some hilarious things about how little she knew about basketball back then. She is a very good athlete and I expected her to take a take a major step forward this season. She did, but at first it was mostly as a super-aggressive defensive player and vocal leader. Despite having a nice outside shot, Jackie was content to defer to Ritika and Deirdre on the offensive end and averaged only 2 points through our first nine games. When the calendar flipped to 2017, we had a game on the very first day back from winter break. We had to play without any practice and also without the concussed Ritika, and we were awful in falling behind 11-0 after 11 minutes. Near the end of that stretch, one of our former players (Olivia, who was there to see her sister Maddie) told Jackie to start looking for her shot and to play with confidence. Hearing those encouraging words from a peer she respected, Jackie became a different player. She finished with 13 points in that game as we rallied to lose by only 2, and followed that up with 18 points in our next game. Over the final eight games, she led us with 9.4 points per game - by far the most astounding transformation I have witnessed from a player I've coached. She was our leading scorer in the playoffs, too. Part of her team-high 12 points in the championship game included a 10-second flurry in which she hit a jumper, stole the basketball and hit another 15-footer to give us a double-digit lead. Always a vocal supporter of her teammates, Jackie emerged as a leader by example and earned the Coach's Award for Leadership.

Kaylee was a little-used reserve as a 7th-grader, when she scored only 4 points the entire season. But she was determined to contribute a lot more this year and her outstanding play, especially on defense, forced me to use her more and more and more. Kaylee became our "pest," hounding the opposing point guard into turnovers and harassing any opponent who dared enter her territory. She wore knee pads so she could dive to the floor without fearing scars and bruises, and she surely led the team in causing tie-ups, gaining us dozens of extra possessions over the course of the season. Kaylee also has a nice shot from the wing and finished fifth on the team in scoring. I preach aggressiveness above all else, so I know Kaylee was happy to get the coveted Coach's Award for Aggressiveness.

Mary Kate was our tallest player and I asked a lot from her. Her main job was to "play tall" - in other words, use her long arms to defend our basket at all costs. A great athlete with good hands, MK also spent many games at the high post of our offense, helping create scoring opportunities for her teammates.

Emma was one of four players who didn't give up after having been cut in previous seasons. In fact, like Kaylee, she had been cut twice yet stuck with it, improved and became a valuable contributor. Emma is a good passer and a real tough kid who battled opposing interior players even though she has a guard's size.

Maddie was our other 6th-grader. Olivia spent three years on the team, so Maddie has been around the program forever , and she has grown to be a nice young player in her own right. She has a good shot, fights for rebounds and has a chance to be a fine all-around player. A lot of potential there.

Ayushi had a great season, especially for somebody who tried out for the team on a lark. "Yoosh" was one of our best athletes, and Ritika's injury forced her to play quite a bit of point guard - she did amazingly well for a girl who had never played competitive basketball. She also has a nice jumper and finished fourth on the team in scoring.

Harshitha was our other 8th-grader, another athletic player who helped put pressure on the opposing guards.

Meeta, one of our two 7th-graders, was one of the best shooters on the team. She finished sixth in scoring and improved as a defender as the season went on.

Adriana, our other 7th-grader, actually was surprised to make the team in November. I liked her athletic ability back then, and I am pleased with how much better she has gotten.

Past, Present & Future

Each team has its own personality and each season has its own vibe.

My first year, I barely knew what I was doing - as was the case for pretty much all of my players - and we figured it out together the best we could. It was a minor miracle that we won seven games, including one in the playoffs.

In my second season, we got a nice talent upgrade and the returning players improved a lot. We went 15-4 but couldn't beat one team - losing three times to them, including the championship game. Although happy we had become legitimate contenders, we left with a feeling of unfinished business.

Last year's team was the envy of the league. To outsiders, winning the title must have seemed easy, but we had several bumps along the way to our 19-2 record.

This year's Eagles were a work in progress, and we progressed well as the season unfolded. We were offensively challenged at times, but we held opponents to 12 points per game - our lowest total in my four years - and the girls worked really hard.

This team required a little more coaching, teaching and mentoring than those of the previous two years, and it was a fun challenge for me. I should be so lucky to have all basketball challenges end in a Silly String shower!

None of us knows what adventures life will bring next. I soon have tryouts for an AAU team I will be coaching this spring, my first such opportunity. Could it lead me in a different direction next season? Well, I certainly will keep an open mind, but I am not in any hurry to leave Scholars Academy - a place that has been so welcoming and supportive, a place filled with smart, motivated, fun kids.

At the start of each season, I give the girls a Player's Guide, filled with our plays, formations, team rules, individual goals, etc. On the cover of this season's guide I put this photo:

One parent saw it and said, "You aren't putting too much pressure on the girls, eh?" My intention was not to put pressure on them but to get them thinking that anything was possible.

So here's to the 2016-17 Eagles. They had a tough act to follow, and they rose to the occasion. They were faced with adversity, and they overcame it. They were determined to create their own place in Scholars Academy history, and they did just that. What a special group of young people!

Of course, with all the good, there is one downside:

It's gonna cost me another 30 bucks to buy a new personalized license plate!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Today's High Five: Super Bowl Edition

1. I'm still trying to figure out what Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his boss, coach Dan Quinn, were thinking after they made it possible for Tom Brady to complete the Patriots' incredible Super Bowl comeback.

The Falcons had an 8-point lead and had moved into FG range with 4:40 to play on yet another circus catch by the indomitable Julio Jones. On first down, Shanahan called the only play that made sense: a handoff up the middle. It lost a yard but it let the Falcons kill another 45 seconds. The clock read 3:56 when Atlanta snapped its next play at the New England 23-yard line.

If the Falcons had run two more times into the line of scrimmage, the very worst outcome would have been this: The Patriots would have burned two time-outs before Matt Bryant, Atlanta's nearly automatic kicker, would have attempted a 40-yard (or so) field goal that would have all but clinched the franchise's first-ever Super Bowl victory.

Instead, inexplicably, Shanahan called for a pass. Matt Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss and the Patriots immediately called their first time-out. Now there was 3:50 left and the Falcons were on the fringe of FG range - it would have been a 52- or 53-yarder.

Again, Shanahan called for a pass. This time, the Falcons were guilty of holding, putting them back at the 45 with 3:44 to go, with the clock stopped due to the penalty. Finally, one more pass play was called, and the pass fell incomplete, again stopping the clock. Time to punt.

So now, instead of a likely 11-point lead with less than 4 minutes to go and New England having only one time-out, Brady trailed by only one score, had a ton of time to work with and still had two time-outs plus the 2-minute warning.

Predictably, the Patriots drove downfield, got a TD with plenty of time to spare, scored the 2-point conversion to tie the game and won in overtime.

After the Super Bowl a couple of years earlier, Seattle coach Pete Carroll was figuratively killed by critics after okaying a pass on first-and-goal from the 1 instead of giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch. The Patriots intercepted to clinch the victory.

That decision, however, was nowhere near as bad as the one by Shanahan (and, by extension, Quinn).

The Falcons had the game and gave it away.

It was a heck of a way for Shanahan to end his Falcons career. He is headed to San Francisco to be the 49ers' new head coach, and I have seen tweets suggesting he already should be fired!

2. How many anti-Trump statements were made in Super Bowl commercials? Five? Ten?

All you need to know about the tenor and tone of our country right now is that some of the largest corporations in America spent millions of dollars for the right to rip Comrade Twitler for his unconstitutional, exclusionary, hate-fueled, anti-immigration decrees.

Some will say the Super Bowl is no place for such political statements. I say we must fight this administration's worst instincts and actions every chance we get and with every method at our disposal - and I applaud Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Airbnb and others for taking financial risks to do so.

3. No matter how much the Falcons helped him, Brady obviously deserves credit for orchestrating the biggest Super Bowl comeback ever. Even if somebody is trying to give you something, you have to be willing and able to take it.

Still, let's not forget that one reason the Patriots were in such a deep hole was that Brady had played horrendously for much of the first half. He repeatedly missed wide-open receivers on what would have been big plays, threw behind several receivers on short passes and was victimized by a Pick-6 on as bad a pass as I have ever seen him throw.

The mark of a champion is one who can overcome adversity - even adversity that he created - to emerge victorious.

Tom Brady did just that, cementing his legacy as the greatest quarterback ever.

I'm sure he is proud and relieved to have my endorsement.

4. It still doesn't seem right that, in the most important game of the year, one team can win the game without the other team's offense even having a chance to touch the football.

Nevertheless, I'm having trouble feeling too sorry for the Falcons.

Even after the collapse of the century and even after losing the pre-OT coin flip, they still had a chance. All they had to do was stop the Patriots short of the goal line, and Ryan, Jones & Co. would have had one more shot.

Instead, the Falcons' defense provided so little resistance that Brady never even faced a third down while orchestrating his team's 8-play, 75-yard, championship-winning drive.

It was a well-earned victory for the Patriots, and a VERY well-earned defeat for the Falcons.

5. I was chicken, and it cost me $350.

I have a friend who makes wagers on an online site and I was going to have him place two bets for me. I was going to put $250 on the Patriots and give 3 points; and I was going to throw $100 at the "over" (on the 59 over/under). But when it came time to actually part with my dough-re-mi, I opted not to.

For most of the night, I was pretty darn happy with my decision.

And then the Patriots kept scoring. And the Falcons kept choking. And then the game went into OT. And then the Patriots won by 6, putting the total points at 62.

But that's OK. I actually got to enjoy the game without having to sweat (or swear). A small price to pay, I guess.