In the spring of 1972 and 1973, I had the privilege of playing on what I’m convinced was the best baseball team in the state. Our starting nine was void of any weakness. In what was the very end of the wooden bat era, Andrew Lewis High School had speed, defense, power, an unhittable ace and an extremely high baseball IQ. In each of these seasons, however, a thin pitching staff was exposed and we were bounced from the regional competition. Our team was devastated and the tears flowed freely. Nearly 40 years later, especially on the occasions when old teammates reunite, the pain still lingers.
Over the last several weeks, I, like many, have watched a considerable amount of tournament basketball. I enjoyed this season’s VHSL tournament mostly due to a greater-than-usual rooting interest. Both Thomas Dale teams came within a whisker of the state’s version of the Final Four. In addition, Petersburg is coached by my former student Billy Lawson. You see, a teacher’s pride is very much like that of a parent. My daughter’s Maroon Tide from Galax was making a run in Division I and I am enamored with George Mason’s girls’ team. Mason is an anomaly; a single-A school surrounded by behemoths in Fairfax County.
All but Mason were derailed along the way. The games all ended with disappointed players on the losing side, but I saw little evidence of devastation in their eyes. I thought back to the gut-wrenching emptiness I had felt 40 years prior, and I began to ponder what had changed.
I have concluded that it is the sheer volume of games that kids play today, especially on elite travel squads, that has made today’s high school tournament (and, I might add, college tournament) action to be less significant. One season simply rolls into the next, with the player becoming more concerned with personal development than with the name that appears on the front of the jersey.
This reality hit me at the conclusion of the Dale-Cosby battle in the Central Region finals. Dale had fought back from a poor first half to take the Titans into overtime. The Knights took a brief lead in the extra stanza, but eventually fell in what I saw as a heartbreaking game. After the game, I saw no tears. In fact, soon after the game ended, girls from both teams were seen sitting together in the stands. They were laughing and joking with one another. What this old goat hadn’t realized is that these players saw each other as friends and teammates. They represent different schools from November thru February, but for the rest of the year they are teammates and friends, not enemy combatants.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this new era. To my way of thinking, Thomas Dale is supposed to hate Matoaca; respecting the competitor, but despising the name on the front of the jersey. The feeling of bitter rivalry is definitely felt more by older fans than by players.
I cannot conclude whether things are better or worse … just different.