Welcome to week twenty-three of The Full Curl. I have found my mind constantly wandering over the past eight days . . . I imagine this is very much the same for all of you. I find it hard to focus, shifting between emotions of sadness, disbelief, worry, anger, and eventually, hope. Everyone copes with challenges in different ways. I thought today I would cope by writing. What you will find is a myriad of thoughts; some may be of interest, some may not. Either way, they are real.
Eight days ago, I got word our regional basketball tournament and the state basketball tournament were postponed. I knew the term “postponed” was inaccurate when applied to our regional basketball tournament. If they were going to send Valdez and Galena home, after they had already arrived to the tournament venue — North Pole High School — there was no way they would eventually host it. However, I would be lying if I said I thought there was any chance the state tournament would be canceled. As is often the case, I was wrong.
We had two practices following the cancelation of our regional tournament. These were easily the two hardest practices that I had ever been a part of. The challenge was keeping our players upbeat, focused, and committed to the goal of getting better, despite the feeling of uncertainly shared by everyone in the gym. Friday’s practice wasn’t very good early, but grew to be of quality as we progressed. At this point, I was still fairly confident we would have a state tournament. My message to our players was simple — at some point we are going to get the go-ahead to play. The team that works the hardest and uses this time to prepare the best will have an advantage over everyone else. We were committed to being that team. Practice was focused on skill development and it was individually competitive.
By Friday, I was confident -- though I would never let our players know -- that this would be the last time we were together as a team. I'd had enough conversations and read enough of the news to know this would likely be the end. Every player was in attendance and all but one assistant coach was present. Practice was competitive, challenging, and upbeat. As we gathered in the circle, I made sure everyone knew and understood how proud I was of them, how much I loved each of them. We talked about the journey and the growth of this group. This group had their flaws, but they were a collectively close group and seemed to care deeply for one another. As we stood there, arms around each other, this was obvious and only made the situation more heart wrenching.
As an athlete, we are taught early on to finish what we begin. If you join a team and are unhappy, you don’t quit. You see it through. If you spend a lifetime in athletics, you are wired to see things through. This is supposed to be one of the great lessons of team and competition. But what do you do when you are forced to stop, forced to end a journey before it is completed? What are you supposed to feel? I have been part of a hundred teams, I have been a competitor my entire life, and for the past 27 years, in one capacity or another, I have been a leader of men. Nothing I have done prepared me for the feelings that were surging through me on an almost hourly basis.
One thing I have learned as I have gotten older is not to waste time being angry or frustrated over things I cannot control. However, I still felt a level of anger and frustration for what was transpiring with our players. I don’t care what any other coach says, our program demands more from its players than any other. The commitment demanded of our players is extraordinary and here they were, unable to enjoy the fruits of that commitment by competing in a regional and state basketball tournament. I will get this opportunity many more times, I suspect, but at the best these guys only get four years. What about Gabe Silas, Jordan Higbee, Eric Evans and Grace Hodges? This was their last chance to be part of something special.
As a side note, my players and I should be exceptional at social distancing. My understanding is social distancing requires six feet of space between you and anyone else. Well, in high school basketball there is a “Closely Guarded” rule, which states no dribbler, or non dribbler who possesses the ball, can be closely guarded for five seconds. If they are, the ref will blow the whistle and give the ball to the other team. The key term here is closely guarded. Closely guarded means within six feet of the offensive player with the ball. This is an emphasis in my program. We are constantly educating our players on what six feet looks like. While the purpose for doin so had always been on getting the ball from the other team, I am glad to know I may have inadvertently been helping to save lives.
As time progressed, my hurt for the end of our season gave way to an understanding that we are now living in a time that would someday be written about in history books. My concerns progressed from anger over our season ending to concern over the health and safety of my family and our players and whether we had enough toilet paper. Every day brings new news and speculation and, in many ways, a new reality.
My concerns have progressed from focus on myself to being about many, many others. How are my parents doing? What is going to happen to Coach Burcell and his restaurant, The Cookie Jar? Or Karla Kukowski and her restaurant, the Blue Roof Bistro? What is going to happen with graduation? How is this going to impact our schools' spring fund-raiser? I have to tell you, twelve years ago, before I came to Monroe, I would not have thought this way. This school, this community, has helped me understand the importance of thinking of others before self.
There is much to learn through this experience. I am guessing everyone now understands more fully what our schools mean to our students. School is not simply a place for learning. At Monroe, school provides a venue for social, spiritual, and athletic growth as well. All of these are offered in a safe and loving space where children are surrounded by adults who truly love and care for them. The smart phone has negatively impacted the ability for people to communicate with one another on a face-to-face basis. However, I’m betting everyone, though still having their phone, is missing the personal enjoyment of being near one another. I’m confident our students more fully understand this as well. If you ask your child, I’ve no doubt they miss school, they miss their friends and yes, they even miss their teachers. Perhaps when this madness ends, we’ll have a greater appreciation for one another.
I have often championed sports and at least somewhere in my files there is a Full Curl written stating sports are the greatest of all the reality television shows. This crisis has reemphasized the value of sports in our everyday lives. Whether as a high school basketball player who cannot finish his or her season, or more likely for the millions of people who are desperately seeking a distraction from the inundation of horrible news spewing forth from radios, televisions and through social media. The closest thing I have experienced to this is 9-11 and even then, sports provided a galvanizing force, uniting America. Who can ever forget George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium? In one symbolic moment the President, regardless of whether you were a Republican or Democrat — or how much the Yankees disgust you — united a country. I would argue the different points of view shared by almost everyone on this crisis and the division it has created, is directly related to the fact that we do not have sports to bring us together and unite us.
I knew this already, but I know without question our leadership at this school is extraordinary. The compassion of Mrs. Angaiak, combined with her fierceness and toughness, makes me happy I am on her side. Our principals, Kristy Parrish and Patrick Riggs, have both provided a sense of calm while working very, very hard at their jobs through all of this. Every decision this group has made has been ahead of the curve and done with the sole focus of making sure the best interests of our community are taken to heart.
Outside of my family, I have no greater passion in life than what I have for this school. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am concerned about our future. While I have never been a proponent of home-schooling, I am confident, as I have sat in meeting after meeting, many held virtually, that nobody will do distance learning better than we will. In the back of my mind, I understand nobody signed on to pay tuition for distance education. Therefore I understand the need for us to deliver distance education at a level that is second to none. Perhaps CSF will only have to do it for a week or two. Regardless of how long we do it, our staff will do it well. Additionally, I would encourage all of you as parents to encourage your child to read during this time alone. As a teacher who spends time every week with sixth graders, I can tell you reading and reading comprehension is one area every child can continue to improve in. Furthermore, ask your child what they have read. Show them you are interested and perhaps it will create greater interest on their part.
As our new normal becomes our new reality, there will be those who use it as an excuse to do nothing and there will be those who use it as an excuse to accomplish something. What will you do with it? I’m going to get into better shape. I’m going to read a book and value the time around my wife and son. I’m going to reflect on a great season and how lucky I am to coach such a unique and committed group of young men. And yes, I’m going to pester Mr. Gray until I figure out how to hold a virtual meeting so I can see the faces of my sixth-graders as I teach them about the past civilizations of central and south America. Pray for me. Or better yet, pray for Mr. Gray.
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