The tournament brings fun and excitement, heartbreak as well

Any student who participates in high school athletics does so for one primary reason: to have fun. They enjoy playing a given sport, competing against others and being part of a team effort.

When tournament time rolls around the fun does not stop. The excitement level does tick up a notch however, and with the exception of the state champion, the season will end with a defeat. For seniors, the end of their career can be especially emotional.

With that backdrop I can tell you that my wife and I headed to Findlay last Wednesday for a regional softball tilt between New Riegel and Antwerp. Having spent thirty years in the classroom at NR, I still follow the fortunes of the Blue Jackets. This year though was special.

As I followed the team on the tournament trail, I talked to some people who have been Blue Jacket supporters for years. When the conversation turned to the lone senior on the team, centerfielder Kristin Coleman, the compliments started flowing. Everyone said similar things, which can best be stated this way: “she is a talented athlete, but a better person.”

I smiled because I already knew that. You see, Kristin Coleman is my niece.

The game figured to be close. Antwerp had only lost two games, the Jackets just four. It was, quite simply, a great game. The Archers scored in the bottom of the first and New Riegel tied it in the top of the second. The score remained 1-1 until the sixth when the Jackets put runners on second and third with one out.

The next play was crazy to say the least. When one suggests that a sport is a game of inches, this play shows just what they mean. The New Riegel batter hits a ground ball to the third baseman. Kristin is the runner on third and she races for the plate. The throw goes to the catcher.

The slide, the tag and it is very close. The umpire goes up with his right hand and the out call is made. Play over? Not on your life. The batter decides to head for second base and the throw goes there. Again, it’s bang-bang. Out again, inning over? Of course not! The call is safe. Play over? Nope.

The runner on second at the start of the play had advanced to third on the throw to the plate. Now she darts for home and one more throw is made to the catcher. This is going to be as close as the other two. The slide, the tag and the safe sign is displayed. New Riegel leads 2-1.

I’m telling you if every call had been made differently, I’m not sure anyone would have complained. That’s how close they were.

Alas, the lead lasted but a half inning. With a couple of hits, an error and some daring base running of their own, Antwerp pushed across a couple of runs in the bottom of the sixth. When New Riegel went down one, two, three in the seventh the season came to a sudden end. That’s the way things happen at tournament time.

After the game we met up with Kristen on the concourse behind the dugout. She was given hugs by so many people; aunts and uncles, parents of teammates, and a former New Riegel softball standout. The hugs were both consoling and congratulating. Kristen was stoic throughout, but the eyes were glistening.

It’s tough when you know your career is over. All the hard work that was put in, all the sacrifices that were made, all the fun — will be no more. Eventually the hurt will go away and you will be left with some wonderful memories.

On the way out of the complex I ran into New Riegel coach Jamie Lininger. I stopped and congratulated him on the season. After thanking me he suggested that the close game was a tough way to lose. I responded by saying there is no good way to lose. I then told him about my own experience.

Fifty one years ago my high school basketball career ended when my Attica team lost to Mansfield St. Peter’s by 31 points in the district tournament. The only drama late in that game was whether St. Pete would score 100 points. For the record, they did, right on the number. Many people told me afterwards that it was better to be blown out than to lose at the buzzer. To this day, I’m not sure that is true.

In a sectional game earlier I almost experienced the buzzer beater loss. Attica trailed arch rival Bloomville by three points with 17 seconds to go. I made two free throws to cut the lead to one point. We stole the ball on the inbounds and I passed it to my teammate and best friend Al Falter who banked in a shot from the wing.

Unfortunately there was still time on the clock. Bloomville threw a pass up the sideline at Columbian’s gym that I got just a fingertip on before I fell into the Dragon bench. Dan Thallman caught the ball and went up from just a few feet away. The horn sounded as the ball reached its apex.

From the seat of my pants I watched as the shot looked like it was going in. It went in and out and we had a one point win. Had it gone in, would that have been a better way to lose the last high school basketball game of my career?

I’ll stick to my answer to Coach Lininger. here is no good way to lose!

I would like to congratulate Kristin and her Jacket teammates on a great season. It ended too soon, but that pain will subside. What you will have to look forward to now is a lifetime of memories. You will be able to recall all the great times you had with your teammates both on and off the field.

Just another reason why we love sports!

Al Stephenson is a columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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