My kids don’t take losing well. And they probably get that from their mom and me. I once cried for a half inning when my best friend struck me out (okay, I was 9), and Jennifer once threw a ping-pong paddle at me.
So when the Earlham girls lost the 1A state championship game 1-0 last week in a thrilling, pressure packed 11-inning contest, I treaded lightly. My daughter Kristen (the team’s third baseman) doesn’t say much and tends to like to be alone after losses – especially one like this – so Jennifer suggested I just stay clear for a while. But I couldn’t.
The game had been epic. Two great teams with superb pitchers played brilliantly. Both teams had multiple opportunities to score but kept getting thwarted by the other’s defense. Having watched Kristen get two hits, make a couple of terrific defensive plays, and then an error that fortunately wasn’t costly – I was emotionally drained. And after the other team pushed across the winning run, I felt profound sadness. Not for me – but for my daughter and all of her teammates that had given so much effort and played so well to get to this point.
So after Kristen exited the field, I walked up to her as she leaned over her bag, stuffing in assorted gear. I wasn’t going to say anything until she was facing me, so I just wiped the dirt out of the three or four scrapes she had on her back. When she was finished and she turned around I hugged her as hard as I could and told her how proud I was. When she tried to pull away I just hugged a little harder as if to say, “No, you’re going to have to stay here and take some of my comfort whether or not you think you really need it.” She relented for a few more seconds, but finally said in a muffled voice, “You’re hurting my face.” Only then did I let go.
The Earlham boys’ team lost 11-2 in the first round of the state tournament.
But that won’t be game that anyone associated with this team will remember. First there was the exciting 3-2 win over long-time rival Van Meter in the district final, followed by the epic 2-0, 11-inning win over Coon Rapids-Bayard in the sub-state game. Like the girls’ final, the sub-state game was another emotional roller coaster ride – only this one ended in ecstasy instead of agony. Kyle (the shortstop) had been playing great all year and I was proud and happy that he continued his stellar play in this game. And after a walk-off two-run homer in the bottom of the 12th by one of the good guys, players, fans and parents unleashed their joy. As the Cardinal fans gathered at the gate closest to the boys’ dugout to congratulate them, one of the Earlham teachers and coaches laughed and commented, “I feel like a groupie.” But this team definitely qualified as rock stars on this night.
When we got tired of waiting for the boys to come out, many of us just walked in and started hugging and high-fiving and taking pictures of everyone we could. We celebrated there for a long time, then dozens of cars followed the team bus into town and made a raucous lap through the streets, and then we celebrated some more in the school parking lot. It was the best party I had been to in a long time.
But despite those wins that earned the team their first-ever trip to the state tournament, that first round loss to top-ranked Mason City Newman still stung. Most of the same group of people who had helped the team celebrate just a week prior stood quietly in the dark outside the locker room at Principal Park for what seemed like forever. When the players finally came out, there were more hugs and handshakes – but these felt a little different. Somber and final. Especially for the seniors.
Kyle hates losing, too, and he would just as soon stew a little as opposed to getting any consolation from his mother or me. Jennifer got to him first, and I waited patiently until she was finished. Kyle seemed to just want to shake my hand, but I wasn’t having it and I grabbed and hugged for all I was worth. He tried to pull away after a while but I held on and told him how proud I was. Then I started to tear up. Only then did I let go.