It's not easy being a Gladiator.
Barely three minutes into the junior varsity basketball game at Northwood High School, the home team Gladiators have fallen behind 10-3 to the Barons of Bethesda-Chevy Chase. Before long, most of Northwood's "big men" -- if you can call 14-year-olds "big men" -- are in foul trouble.
The thing is, the Gladiators beat the Barons the last time they met. It was Northwood's last victory. It also was Northwood's first victory. In other words, it was Northwood's only victory.
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The Gladiators JV boys team is 1-15. The girls basketball team, which is playing over at B-CC on this same afternoon, is winless. Last fall, the Northwood football team went 0-8, the tennis team 0-12, the golf team 0-6. Girls volleyball went 2-11 and girls soccer 3-6-2.
If you look solely at the win-loss record, you might think that the Northwood teams are nothing but a bunch of losers. But the odds are long for the Silver Spring school.
After closing in 1985, Northwood reopened in the fall with just a ninth-grade class.
"Ninth-graders aren't going to beat up on 10th-graders. That's just a given," athletic director Tom Manuel told me before the boys basketball game. Instead, ninth-graders are going to get beat up on by junior varsity teams that include 9th-, 10th- and in some cases 11th-graders.
Still, the Northwood cheerleaders are being true to their optimistic calling. "Go Northwood!" they cheer. "Wooooo! Be aggressive! B-E aggressive!"
There's the squeak of basketball shoes on the court and shouted instructions from the clipboard-holding Northwood coach. There's a moment of stunned silence when the Gladiators suffer the indignity of actually being dunked on by a lanky B-CC player.
"They want to win," says Susan Valeriano, who's in the stands watching her son, Nick. "They're frustrated they don't play as well" as other teams.
"They don't have the older ones to look up to," says Lisa Lloyd, whose son Anthony is on the court. Anthony's brother Tyler, 9, is watching, too. "They're losing by 20," says Tyler after glancing at the scoreboard in the fourth period.
A B-CC player sinks a free throw.
"They're losing by 21," says Tyler.
There's an upside to the situation, though. Many of the kids on Northwood's teams have never played organized sports. They might not have even made the squad at another high school.
And although they have no one to look up to this year, starting next year they'll be the ones everyone else looks up to. They'll explain that players wear a tie on game days. They'll start traditions for future Gladiators to follow. When the time comes, they'll design the varsity uniforms.
But for now, it's tough. The Northwood players look aggravated. It's so unfair that wanting something with all your heart -- a layup, a rebound, a victory -- just isn't enough to make it yours.
When the final whistle blows, the score is 57-39 B-CC.
While the boys are getting a post-game talk from their coach, the girls team returns from its game.
"Y'all win?" someone asks a girl Gladiator.
"No," she says. "I had two points, though." When you're ninth-graders taking on the world, you look for bright spots wherever you can.
Coach Yvette Sullivan has found one. Even though her girls lost again, 49-28, she says it was one of the best games of the season. She doesn't look at where her girls are. She looks at where they were and where they're going.
"Most of the players came with no ability," she says. "They didn't know how to dribble. They didn't know how to shoot. They didn't know how to play the game."
Today, though, the coach says they seem less wary of doing something they'd been afraid of before: shooting the ball.
"They play hard. They give it their all," says Coach Sullivan. And she's been told more than once by opposing coaches and parents that her girls are gracious in defeat.
Here come the boys now, filing out of the locker room in their street clothes. What's it like to always face older, more talented opponents, I ask.
"It's hard," says Jon Mark Lidsky. "It's a challenge."
"We still need to come together as a team. We still play as individuals. That's a quote from Jarvis Snead," says Jarvis Snead, making sure I get his name right.
"That's a quote from Coach Grant," says Quentin Fletcher.
That would be Shannon Grant, the Gladiators' coach. Coach Grant never played JV ball. When he was a ninth-grader at Virginia's renowned Oak Hill Academy, he was on the varsity team.
"I don't think I ever had a season where we lost more than four games," says Coach Grant. "Not to brag."
He knows that losing is hard on his Gladiators, but playing organized ball requires a different set of skills than goofing off on the playground.
"You can no longer make sloppy passes," he says. "You can no longer miss layups. You can no longer not be able to dribble with your left hand . . . . You'll be exposed."
Before they graduate, the Northwood Gladiators will get stronger. They'll get better. They may even win. And along the way, they'll realize that the same things they learned on the basketball court -- practice, work hard, pull your weight, work as a team -- work off of it, too.
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