With the announcement, the collective breath was sucked out of an entire town.
There was anger. There was disappointment.
Only immediate family members would be allowed into the state tournament games. That included siblings, parents, grandparents, and guardians of the varsity players, coaches, and students managers. Even the junior varsity players were not allowed unless they had a brother on the varsity squad.
Our boys basketball team had qualified for their third state tournament in a row. For a small school, that is a really impressive run. Several of the seniors this year were a big reason for that success. It would be their final tourney and a chance to improve upon 2019’s runner-up finish.
The team played mostly an eight-man rotation through the season. Ranchhand 2 was generally the 7th or 8th man in those games. It was the first season he felt like he was a contributor during games and not just during practice. Ranchhand 3 was a student manager and loved the time he got to hang out with the ‘big’ boys.
The entire town had followed the team all over eastern Nebraska for these past years. In the 2019 state championship game, people turned up from far and wide to cheer on “their” team. Even if they hadn’t stepped foot back in our little town for many years.
Little towns are that kind of place where they are part of your identity forever. They are special.
Every team in Lincoln that weekend had to deal with the disappointment of reduced crowds. I do think it wore on our team a little more than some of the others.
Don’t get me wrong. They said all the right things. They played hard. But the energy wasn’t quite there.
The crowd did their best to fill the arena with sound. It was pretty similar to a normal high school basketball game, volume-wise.
But it wasn’t a state tournament level of volume.
Our team ended up losing the first round game by one point. It was a bitter pill after a great season.
The team that we lost to made it to the championship, losing a rather lopsided game there. The state champion? A rival team that our boys had beaten during the regular season.
Life is full of lessons and most of us have our “what if” moments that we dwell on for a long time. This game will be one of those moments for many on the team. They are a great group of boys, and have been singled out for their sportsmanship and attitude by coaches and fans (and players) on other teams. I hope the disappointment is eventually blunted by the memories of their overall accomplishments.
The choices that were made did affect the tournament and disappointed many people who were not allowed to attend. But it was the best option out of many bad ones. The boys did get to play. Families did get to see them play. Risk was mitigated as much as possible.
In some ways, it was like watching them at their first fourth-grade tournament all those years ago. It was largely the same people sitting in the bleachers with us. Funny how some things come around full-circle.
It was definitely a state tournament to remember.