The frustration was almost unbearable. Our first game had just ended. We had trailed, 19-0, in the first quarter and lost by 21 to Paul VI. I had hoped this season was going to be different. After all, we lost 17 games last season, and most of the players were coming back. It's as if we picked up where we left off in February.
It has been said that losing builds character. There must be some truth to that, for as I entered the gym for our first practice of the season, I was met by all the characters who had survived the previous year. It wasn't the first time I had seen them since last year. Falls Church is a small town so it is not uncommon for me to run into my players at the grocery store, community center or video-game parlor.
Upon each meeting, we would perform our usual ritual of hand-slaps and smiles. Then, while they would talk of how much better this year was going to be, I would nod my head in noncommittal agreement. Then it was more hand-slaps and goodbye. It's hard for a coach to be friends with his players, but it's even harder not to be when your school and town are so small.
The varsity and junior varsity practiced together for the first two weeks, not by choice but out of necessity. The varsity had only six or seven prospective players try out, and it quickly became obvious that my team from last year was about to be broken up by promotions to varsity. In fact, that's the Catch-22 of coaching a junior varsity sport at a small school. Although you hope you get a talented group of kids, you know the better ones are going up to varsity anyway. So much for the dream of returning everybody from last year's squad. All three captains have moved up to fill varsity positions.
It is during these early practices that the intensity level is at its highest point. The guys are fighting to make the team and often put unnecessary pressure on themselves, believing that every move they make is a critical one. Players continually worry about their status. They want to know their strengths and weaknesses and often ask if I saw a particular shot or move that they made. Some spend time searching for an edge, while others prefer to leave it in the hands of fate. Few realize that they will actually make my decisions for me by their performance during practice, not before or after the workouts.
But in a series of strange events, my job of cutting players was eliminated. For various reasons, seven players quit the team. A couple said they would rather play in the recreation league, and a few cited problems with grades. One admitted he wasn't able to make the type of commitment I ask from my players, and one never gave a reason -- he just walked out. It's too bad. He had the team made.
I'm left with 13 players, and it seems like a good mixture of kids. Eight players return from last year's squad -- a team that won only once and gave new meaning to the word "blowout." We were small and inexperienced. This year we're just small.
The Scullys are back, Randolph and Malcolm, two cousins that not only bring a cerebral approach to the game but also make car pooling much easier. Our point guard, James Lightfoot, is back to run the show. We call him Spud because of his resemblance to Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks. I thought he might end up on the varsity and was relieved when Coach Jim Spiridopolous didn't take him. This Spud's for me.
Chris Lanier, Ryan Malisko and Daryl Broyhill return to do what they like to do best -- shoot. And Danny Ohr and Steve Shick will be forced to play inside among the trees again.
And there are new faces. Joey Romer and Chris O'Hara are two guards I knew when I was a counselor at their day care center six years ago. It's funny, but they seemed taller then. Robert Tucker, Cory Russ and David Arons round out the team and, though inexperienced, are being forced to learn quickly to keep up with all the veterans.
Tucker is also the one to provide us with a little comic relief, particularly when he dons his uniform. William (The Refrigerator) Perry's clothes would fit Robert better. We've been assured by our home economics department that a custom tailoring job is in the works.
But the experienced players will be our strength, and these players have helped the early practices run more smoothly than in the past. Although I'm still waiting for a leader to step forward and take charge, the older players have helped the rookies through the tougher practices. More than once they helped calm a shaken player after one of my tantrums.
Through everyone's help, we were able to get past the opening weeks without incident and quickly settled into the regular, often boring, routine of practice. Hours upon hours of repeating the same things over were occassionally broken up with a game of dribble tag or a foul-shooting contest. As we approached our first game, we worked hard to avoid getting stale and becoming sick of basketball before the season even began.
The practices have been hard, about two hours each, with lots of running, defensive drills and offensive repetition. But the players seem to be enjoying themselves. Because of the size of Falls Church, they've all grown up through elementary school together, and they like to be around each other.
As for me -- well, we've had no problems thus far. Many of them have known me for years, and when they're not joking about my 1970 Buick, they're pulling out old yearbooks of when I went to Mason and telling me what a freak I looked like back then. We spend time in the coach's office after practice discussing everything from Manute Bol to the Super Bowl.
How the season will go is anybody's guess. We all received a rude awakening in that first game. We're not as good as we thought we were. Not yet. But we'll hang in there and keep working. We are all in this together, and we're tired of building character.