I recently attended a Lynchburg-Clay girls basketball game at my alma mater. It was a classic battle between two of the most storied programs in their conference. For years, the Eastern vs. LC matchup has always been highly contested and is typically for either a gold ball — symbolic of an undefeated league season — or the outright championship.
As it turns out my Lady Mustangs came out on the wrong side of the scoreboard that night. But as I reflect back on sports throughout my life, I was left with some thoughts, and some wonderful and not so wonderful memories.
My basketball athletic career began in the fourth grade playing for the Buford Bulldogs. Back then the league didn’t allow fourth grade teams, so a few of us fourth-graders played on the fifth grade team. We were very good, so good that during my three years in elementary basketball we seldom lost.
I played basketball all the way through high school. The highlight of my career came as a player for the 1992-93 state final four Mustang team. We were very good that year, only suffering to regular season losses. We had a great tournament run, and one of our teammates set the school scoring record. Most of you will likely remember the name Paul Cluxton. He was a prolific scorer.
I can remember my very last game as a Mustang. I had sprained my ankle in the sectional finals vs. Western Latham my senior year. I had one week to make it back to playing shape before we faced Portsmouth West in the district semifinal. I was unable to truly recover, so my final game as a Mustang was spent cheering my teammates from the sidelines, and many times fighting back emotions as I knew I could not help. We lost that game by three points and my career was over.
I tell this story background to get to the true point of my article — sports, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I have been involved in sports as a player, coach, director of youth sports, official, parent of an athlete and spectator. I have seen something that I love very much turned into something very bad on occasion, but I would rather focus on the positive side.
While watching the game at the beginning of this article, I was reminded what true teamwork embodies. I watched as the top player for LC was double and sometimes triple-teamed throughout the game. She still managed to tally 26 points and in the process recorded her 2,000th career point. That is an impressive feat, but those are only numbers. What I was impressed with most was the fact that she knew that the other team was going to shut her down using three players if needed. She realized that her teammates were there for a reason. Time after time, I saw her drive only to realize the path was blocked, and she would pass the ball to a teammate even with the game was on the line.
This sure does resonate in life. Roadblocks, illness, financial difficulties, death. They all block the path to happiness or direction in life. It is in those moments that we lean on those around us to help us through the storm. The moral to the story on that night was that sports offered a lesson. I have often felt that I learned more in defeat than in victory. On this night, the loss hurt, and as this young lady left the floor with her teammates, I hope a lesson was learned — count on the people around you to help you carry the load.
Another point is very personal as 2002 began the softball career of my oldest child. My wife Becky and I signed her up for softball at the age of 4. Those were great years traveling from town to town in the summer heat. Hayley started out as a pretty good third baseman and a pretty good power hitter. One youth coach used to call her wheels. Now, you may think that meant she was fast. Well, I think my daughter thought that, too, but that was not the case.
We watched Hayley grow into an exceptional softball player over the years. She did most of this on her own through hard work, determination and a passion for a game. One day as she was playing third base I had a parent from an opposing team ask me why our third baseman played so close to the plate. “Didn’t I worry about her getting hit?” was the question he asked. I hadn’t noticed how close she played until then, but as she would learn, the closer she played, the quicker she could get the ball to first base.
Unfortunately, in her high school her teams were decent, but never seemed able to get over the hump. She saw many of her friends and teammates from younger years fall away, and her role as just a good player turned into a role of helping younger players. We watched her turn into someone that people respected for how she played and why she played the game. She made several all-league teams and several all-district teams and she amassed 103 career hits, including a few home run balls that we still possess. There always has to be a lesson to learn, something to gain, some morsel of life lesson to be valued.
Hayley’s last tournament game saw her eclipse the 100-hit mark, and she didn’t even know it was close. I had put all of her stats together with the help of her high school coaches and athletic director. She went about her business that day at Huntington High School doing what she loved. The moral is not about that 100th hit, but about what happened six innings later. We lost. Career over. Fifteen years of blood, sweat, sore arms, bruised and scraped legs, and joy and tears were unable to be held in check. I saw that person who put team ahead of self in so many ways finish the test. Although it wasn’t always on the winning end, sports held a lesson. It taught a story that we too often miss.
Winning isn’t the most important part of sports. Not all teams win. Not all players can achieve greatness. But all players can walk away knowing they left it all on the line, they didn’t give in to obstacles, they didn’t run when things got tough, and they are better for it.
Do sports matter? Sure they do, but for the right reasons and in the right circumstances. Don’t always focus on the wins. Learn from every aspect of the game and in every facet of the journey.
When the game breaks you, rub some dirt on it and get back in the fray. That is the lesson to be learned, and I‘m not just talking about sports.
Chad E. McConnaughey is the Highland County recorder.