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A skilled basketball team was just shy of winning the state championship


The high school girls basketball team that I coach didn't win the state championship. Therefore, I suck as a coach, or so goes the prevailing wisdom. Coaching, for me, lies somewhere between Really Cool Hobby and Raison d'etre. It allows me to remain competitive, but losing still sucks as much as it did when I was an athlete.

I had a great group of kids--self-starters who don't do stupid teenage things and who seem to understand the correlation between hard work and success--and we had a pretty special season. We won 30 games, which is by far the best ever for a Green Fields team and is also the Class 1A state record. We went a combined 9-2 in Thanksgiving and Christmas tournaments against much-larger schools from Classes 2A through 4A, including several that went to state. And we lost only one conference game, albeit to our dreaded rivals, the Tigers of St. David.

Most of the really good 1A teams in Arizona tend to fall into one of two categories: Mormon teams and Indian teams. (The redesign of the Weekly has shortened my column, so I don't have time or space to write about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Native Americans. Yep, the art department done made me politically incorrect.)

The LDS teams trot out 15 kids who all look like Daryl Hannah. They just kick your butt, and then they're real polite afterwards. Meanwhile, the Rez teams come at you relentlessly and try to run you into the ground. A lot has been written about how basketball has become the new religion on Indian reservations across the country, but it's something that every sports fan should experience in person. Let's just say the crowds are huge and involved.

Then, of course, you have St. John's, an LDS town whose school mascot is the Redskins. Not surprisingly, they're real, real good.

When we got to the state tournament, the Arizona Interscholastic Association, in its finite wisdom, decided to put our first couple playoff games at Higley High School. Do you know where Higley High School is? Well, I've been there several times, and I still don't know where it is. The best I can figure is that it's at the far southeast corner of Maricopa County. It is literally at the intersection of two dead-end streets. Our hotel was across from Arizona Mills in Chandler, and it took us an hour to get to the school. And along the way, we drove through areas where there are $300,000 homes going up on the right side of the road, and huge, stink-like-all-hell dairy farms on the left. You know that old saying, "If God were going to give the world an enema, El Paso is where He'd stick the hose?" Well, you could substitute "Higley" for "El Paso" and not skip a beat.

If you reach the Final Four, you get to play at America West Arena. Of course, being 1A girls, the games are at 8 o'clock in the morning, but it's still America West. Actually, last year, my team reached the Final Four, but because of a scheduling snafu by the AIA, America West wasn't available, so we had to play the game at, you guessed it, Higley High.

We won our first state game over Bagdad. Do you think there is one joke those poor kids haven't already heard a million times? When we got to the Elite Eight, all that was left in the tournament were five LDS teams, two Rez teams (East Fork Lutheran and St. Michael) and us. St. Michael is a Catholic boarding school on the Navajo Reservation. A few years ago, when they won the state title, their coach was a nun who wore her habit during games. Can you imagine having to referee that game?

We lost to East Fork. They drained a bunch of threes in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game. This was an especially bitter pill to swallow, since my team set a state record for three-pointers in a season this year. East Fork made it to the state championship game, where they lost to St. Michael.

When the game was over, my kids cried and hugged each other. Thirty minutes later, they were in the stands, rooting for the boys team and doing their homework. For the second straight year, we'll only lose two seniors, so we should be real good again next year. I was helping one junior kid with her calculus, and she looked up and said, "I'm going to work real hard this next year so I'll never have to feel like this again."

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the real world will throw stuff at her that will make her feel way worse, so I just shrugged and said, "Yeah, me too."

I can't wait.

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