We’re almost 72 hours past last weekend’s state tournament Final Four round — the next to last week of basketball season — and I’m still thinking about the action. Well, more so the emotions than the actions.
The end of a season. That last game. It’s always been an interesting moment in my life as a sportswriter. Maybe because, in some strange way, I’m a fan of dichotomy. In every game there’s a winner or a loser. That much is always true.
But when it’s a win-or-go-home situation, that great divide of emotions on the playing surface — be it the turf of a football field, the grass and dirt on the baseball or softball diamond, the clay courts of tennis, or the hardwood of the basketball court — has always intrigued me immensely.
One image seared into my sportswriter’s mind is the scene on the Georgia Dome field back in 2012 when Lovejoy High came up heartbreakingly short against Alvin Kamara’s Norcross squad. It was a game Lovejoy should’ve won. I truly believe they were the best team that year, even if Kamara was the best individual player on the field.
He showed up at the right time — late in the fourth quarter — and the Wildcats were left with a runner up trophy and a ton of emotions.
Among the most heartbroken was 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end A.J. Jackson. At the time, he was an Ole Miss recruit. He had what we believed a bright future on the next level. But the only thing that mattered for him at that moment was the fact that he came up short of a state title for the second straight season.
While Norcross was on one side of the field in the throes of raucous celebration, Jackson and a couple of his teammates, were inconsolable. Literally.
Nothing like watching a heartbreak on the field to remind you that these big, athletic behemoths that we spend much of our time ogling and analyzing are, at least on this level, kids — young human beings with raw emotions just like some of our own sons and daughters.
It never fails. Every time we come to that separation point, I sometimes find myself having to hold back the pastor/counselor/consoler side of me to keep on my sportswriter’s hat. It just has a way of tugging at those old heartstrings of mine.
Such was the case Saturday, as three of the four Southern Crescent teams remaining in the state hoops tourney ended their seasons with losses — while the other teams extended their seasons to the limit — one more game with a chance to play for a state championship.
I saw two of those teams that fell on the losing side of things Saturday. Forest Park and Dutchtown. Both teams battled hard. Even Dutchtown — an underdog with its 18-13 record coming in and playing against the state’s No. 2 team in Mays — looked and played like it belonged on that stage.
It’s not a stretch to say that with a few different bounces of the ball, and a few less turnovers, the outcome could’ve been different for the Lady Bulldogs. After all, they were at one point trailing only by three, 28-25, in the early part of the third quarter before things began to unravel.
It wasn’t long after when Cierra Lowe, one of Dutchtown’s seniors, and perhaps one of the toughest and gutsiest little guards I’ve ever seen in high school, showed a softer side.
While Dutchtown was still struggling to stay in the game, Lowe fouled out. As she walked closer to the sideline, the hardness of her game face gradually began to melt away and the tears began to fall.
Down double digits with less than five minutes to go, Lowe no doubt allowed the inevitable reality to cross her mind that the moment would probably be her last on the court as a Bulldog.
At that moment, Dutchtown coach April Tate whispered some words to her distraught senior.
“I’ll just say one of the things I said to her,” Tate said with a wry smile. “One of those things was about being champions. We win and we lose with class. We may have lost this game, but she worked her tail off. Cierra Lowe may have lost this game, but she played with heart. She may not win a championship, but she had the heart of a champion.”
After the game, Lowe said it was one of the most difficult times of her high school career.
“At that moment, I knew I couldn’t help my team anymore,” Lowe said. “We were kind of in a rough patch, and usually I’m the spark for our team when we’re in that rough patch. And I wasn’t there to get what was necessary for us to come back, and I knew that was my fault because I fouled out of the game. Every foul I committed was on me tonight. I can’t take that back.”
Fellow senior Janessa Murphy was able to hold it together for the most part until they got back to the locker room where it was, in the words of Tate, “a river of tears flowing.”
When Murphy emerged, she did her best to hold back her emotions and analyze the situation.
“It’s hard, but we fought really hard. We did what everyone else said we couldn’t do. We went really hard, and I’m proud of my teammates and don’t regret or take away anything from them at all.”
She said that while choking back tears. A couple of questions later, and she couldn’t fight them back anymore. Her answers deteriorated into one-word replies couched between sobs.
As she finished talking, Lowe could be heard in the background shouting out, “Just one more game! We just needed one more game,” as she let loose her emotions in the arms of a consoling coach.
Lowe said her and her team had literally been doing a “six game countdown.” That was the number they needed, from the beginning of the postseason to get to a state championship. And coming up that short was what made it so difficult, she said.
“We had just one more game,” she said. “One more game to win, and we would’ve been in Macon. We fell short of our one more game. That’s hard to take.”
It’s not just hard for the players, either. In moments like those, it’s expected to see the unraveling of young emotions. But coaches have the task of trying to keep theirs in check in order to be a rock of support for their hurting athletes.
That much is expected, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“I was trying to think how I was going to come out (of the locker room) with no tears,” Tate said. “They know I love them. I don’t have to tell them. But they know that I love them.”
These moments remind you that just as it isn’t only about scoring points and winning games for the athletes, it’s also not just about X’s and O’s for the coaches. I heard players from both Dutchtown and Forest Park repeatedly throw around the term “family,” and it wasn’t a cliche.
Every now and then a coach will pull back their straight-lined exterior and give you a peak into their true heart for, not just the game, but the athletes who play it. And what Tate said about her girls let you know that the family theme was real.
“I don’t have any kids, so they’re like my children,” Tate said. “I sacrifice for them, and my sacrifices are so that they can have the things in life they need so they can be successful.”
Sounds like something your mother would say to you, doesn’t it?
FOREST PARK COACH ON LEGACY
Even Steve Cole, the often stoic coach of the Lady Panthers, seemed to be a couple of rightly-timed words away from letting a little moisture drop from his eyes.
In the four years I’ve covered sports in the area, Cole has always been helpful. Always gracious with interviews, whether with himself or any one on his team. He’s not necessarily a quote machine, but he gives you what you need to make a good story.
I’ve only seen Cole get somewhat emotional twice. Once during his daughter Ashlee Cole’s senior season when McIntosh came close to upsetting Forest Park in its gym in the first round of the playoffs. The Lady Panthers pulled it out, and as Cole the coach talked about Cole the daughter and his team’s heart, you could hear that pre-cry quiver in his voice.
The second time was Saturday after Forest Park’s overtime loss to Stephenson.
When you think about coaches who have come painfully close to finishing at the top, only to get knocked off at seemingly the last possible moment, Cole has to be toward the top of that list.
Since Cole began pacing the sidelines at Forest Park during the 2009-10 season here’s how his seasons have ended:
2009-10: 61-55 loss to Southwest DeKalb in Final Four.
2010-11: 55-45 loss to Fayette County in State Championship game.
2011-12: 51-40 loss to Alcovy in Elite Eight.
2012-13: 43-41 loss to Southwest DeKalb in Final Four.
2013-14: 59-32 loss to Southwest DeKalb in Final Four.
2014-15: 55-44 loss to Stephenson in Final Four.
That’s five Final Fours — including three straight — and a state championship game in six seasons. In coach speak, that translates to the markings of a good program. Consistency. A winning tradition. A program of girls who, as Cole said after Saturday’s game, “are getting what they need to get out of the program.”
All of that is cause for him to be proud, right? Right. And he is. But even Cole couldn’t help but allow the coach’s mask to slide from his face just a bit as he wrapped up post game comments about the Stephenson loss.
“The girls are crying,” he said. “Another Final Four. Another legacy unfinished.” He said that to capsulize their feelings. But somehow you just believed that a little of his own feelings could be found in that statement.
THE WEST GEORGIA AFTERMATH
Obviously I wasn’t there to see Fayette’s 51-39 loss to Buford in coach John Strickland’s first trip back to the Final Four since his team’s state crown win over Forest Park. But if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to wager their scene over at West Georgia was similar to what was happening in Fort Valley. Especially with a special player like senior and Western Kentucky signee Kayla Smith playing in her last game.
Teams always seem to want to send their senior performers out on top, especially those who have the kind of ability that Smith has.
On the other hand, the ever-animated Jonesboro coach Dan Maehlman has reason to celebrate as his team has a chance to repeat as state champs Thursday against Carrollton. And as passionate as the other coaches are after dealing with tough losses, Maehlman is equally so when chronicling big wins.
In Gainesville, after pulling out the W against a crazy Johnson High home crowd hungry for an upset, he lauded his kids as being clutch players who “make good things happen.” And after Saturday’s Final Four win against Liberty County, he told the Clayton News-Daily that he had “the best kids in the nation.”
No matter how things shake out for Jonesboro Thursday against Carrollton, I have no doubt that we’ll get the chance to see another dichotomy. Tears will flow on both sides, but for different reasons. Passions will run equally high in opposite directions.
And we’ll all sit and watch and take it in, hopefully remembering that it’s these moments in sports that teach student-athletes and coaches alike a whole lot more about life than mere wins and losses.