The Winning in the Losing
This week I had the opportunity to recapture my former career as a sportswriter and attend the Minnesota State High School girls basketball tournament. Maybe I wasn't so much recapturing my former career though, as recapturing my youth. Basketball was a huge part of my life growing up. I spent countless hours practicing lay-ups in the driveway, being driven to basketball camps on hot summer afternoons across the metro, and long winter afternoons in the high school gym running "killers" at the end of an already long practice.
I even met my husband playing basketball, in endless pickup games at the University of Missouri Rec Center. He could dunk; it was love.
I came to the state high school basketball tournament this year to cheer on a team in the Class 2A semifinals, Glencoe Silver Lake, a team that happened to include two of my church members (one of them a confirmation student and the other a sister and cousin to two current confirmation students) and a longtime assistant coach who's been a lay leader in our rural congregation for many years. The GSL Panthers weren't expected to make the state tournament, but they won an improbable, almost miracle-like upset during the final week of March Madness and the transition from Lent into Holy Week. They won again in the first round of the state tournament, advancing to the semis, when I got the chance to login early that weekend and score a coveted ticket.
Like everything else in 2020-2021, COVID impacted the state tournament. Only a few fans were able to come, there were no bands or cheerleaders or raucous student sections. Fans were required to sit spaced apart, two by two, wearing face masks. The players wore face masks too, pulling them up when they fell down after a tough play, continuing to play nonetheless, the indomitable spirit and persistence of life even in the midst of a pandemic.
They played at a time when the UK coronavirus variant B117 was ravaging Minnesota, particularly in the county next door to Glencoe-Silver Lake High School. Recently, a young high school hockey referee had died of COVID. The state and high school sports and school leaders engaged in a consistent balancing act: taking precautions, worrying about students missing the rhythms of high school life and sports, worrying that any decision they made would have irreversible and awful consequences. We had confronted these same impossible and difficult choices in the church, too. And yet we persevered, masked and distanced, in the midst of the irrepressible Holy Spirit.
Watching the girls begin to play, I was immediately taken back to the joy and the pain of high school athletics. The way it felt when you were sitting on the end of the bench, just waiting for the coach to call your name to go into the game. The way it felt to drive hard to the basket and draw a foul, and then stand on the free-throw line and take a deep breath with everyone watching you. The way it felt to gather in a huddle while the coach drew up an out-of-bounds play. The way it felt when the buzzer expired at the end of the game, and you wished you could have done more.
Unfortunately, the GSL girls team likely had all of those moments and many more this week in the state tournament. The overwhelming joy and excitement to be playing at Target Center. The frustration over how different everything was in the time of COVID. The worry in the back of your mind about the COVID variants. The feeling that you wanted to leave everything on the floor. That feeling when, at the end of the game and the score didn't go your way, you were tormented by thinking of all the things you wished you would have done differently. The sadness for seniors, at the final buzzer of their final high school game.
I wish I could have seen our local team win and win again, all the way to the state championship. But as I watched them from the top row of the socially distanced arena, all of us wearing masks and cheering as loud as we could, I realized that much more of what they'd experienced - and we'd all experienced through them - had to do with winning rather than losing. Regardless of the final score, they'd kept playing and fighting hard for their school and for each other. They'd overcome tough times and relied on one other, practicing offenses and defenses and press-break plans, trusting that their teammates would be where they needed them to be at all times. They'd had to be resilient and patient and adaptable. All of these traits would serve them well in the rest of their lives. As female high school athletes, they'd learned that their bodies were meant to be strong as well as beautiful -- and that they could rely on their own physical strength and, together with the rest of their teammates, achieve amazing accomplishments against all odds.
In a year of unimaginable global loss, what I saw on the court that day was a lot of winning: winning for the human spirit, winning for the power of team above self, winning for memories, winning for skills and fortitude that would last a lifetime. I'm grateful again to sports for reminding of this same lesson that I'd learned anew the week before during Holy Week. Jesus' amazing power is always in transforming the losing into the winning: of taking challenges and meeting them with life, love and forgiveness rather than rage and resignation. There is so much winning even in the greatest of life's losses, and it is those wins that pull us through into new life, each and every day.