It’s Meant a Lot

The media scrum following our state semifinal loss wrapped up with one final question... 

“What has this team meant to you?” 

The television cameras stared back at me blankly as the question lingered in the air.  

What has this team meant to you? 

It wasn’t supposed to be a loaded question, but my stalled silence made it clear that a simple answer would take me a moment to find. They wanted something to wrap up a 30-second summary of our demise on the evening news, but it was damn near impossible to summarize what this team meant to me in a soundbite made for TV. 

I stumbled through an answer that needed more time to bake. 

“Look, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years, and these kids deserve all the credit in the world for that, but what am I going to miss the most about this team?” 

My voice cracked just a touch before I continued.  

“These players love each other. We got better, and they put in an incredible amount of work to get to this point, but what we will miss the most is what it felt like to be together - in practice, on the court, in the locker room, on the bus… I’m going to miss seeing them every day and what it feels like to be us.” 

And with that everyone moved on. The reporters ran their stories (the clip didn’t make the cut), and everyone’s attention shifted to the teams that were left to play in the following day’s championship game. But for me, over two weeks later, the question remains.  

What has this team meant to you? 

It feels like only another coach could truly understand how complicated the answer to that question might be.  

In 2017, we played in our third consecutive state championship game, and won the title for the second year in a row. Since our first trip, I had fallen in love with everything about the state tournament. The sights and sounds of the arena were truly unique. I loved the atmosphere as more and more of our fans came out of the woodwork to fill the stands. I enjoyed the pageantry of the girls state basketball tournament -  from the presentation of the flags to the volunteers dressed in tuxedos who swept the floor at halftime. I relished the opportunity to meet those that made the games possible - from the officials on the floor and at the scorer’s table to the announcers and ushers - we learned as many names as we could and looked forward to seeing those now-familiar faces on each return trip.  

It wasn’t just the tournament itself, I loved the build-up before each game. From the week-long wait before the quarterfinal to the pregame routine we followed religiously from walk-through to tip-off, I felt a comfortable familiarity with the entire process. Returning to the state tournament felt like putting on an old, comfy sweatshirt that still felt exactly the same as it did the last time I wore it. I was so happy for this group of kids to get to share that experience for the first time. 

What has this team meant to you? 

As I looked across the media room I watched our senior “captain of the captains” fight back tears as she searched for ways to describe the disappointment of not playing our best when it mattered the most, and the immense pride everyone felt in making the Final Four after winning just one game her freshman year.  

I flashed back to the numerous fall evenings when she was the only player to show up at open gym. Sometimes we would shoot together on the Gun, other times we went against each other in one of our many shooting games. She always wanted to keep score, and she always wanted to win. Even though she beat this old man most of the time, there were plenty of nights when she wondered if it would be worth it. All I could tell her was that “hard work pays off,” but truth be told, sometimes it felt more like a prayer than a promise.  

You can imagine how much it meant when she had a Hollywood moment in our regional semifinal just two weeks earlier. We were the top seed in our region, but found ourselves in a dogfight in the second round. Trailing 37-35 with two minutes to play, our state tournament dream hanging in the balance, she scored ten straight points to carry us to victory. Her smile stretched from ear-to-ear when she came up to me after the game and said, “I guess hard work does pay off.” 

Indeed it does. 

What has this team meant to you? 

There is a personal aspect to this story as well. After our second state title in 2017 I took a job at one of the largest schools in the state. In the middle of my third year, I was asked to resign for personal reasons to quell a parent and player rebellion. For the first time in 18 years I was a coach without a team, left to question everything I once thought I knew.  

That will leave a mark on man’s confidence. 

Few realize how healing our experience has been at Mount Vernon. We have been blessed with talented, hard working kids who care deeply about each other and who enjoy being together. They have created a culture where Gratitude, Effort, and Love have become a way of life. They look forward to practices and bus rides, locker room jams and post game celebrations. They have made it fun for everyone involved. 

But perhaps most meaningful to me, the parents and players have grown to trust us. They allowed us to coach, to correct, to encourage, and to love. They believe that what we do has helped them to become better players and better people. Though few beyond the staff and our spouses have any idea how many hours go into this work, we feel appreciated for the time and effort we have invested in the program. One of my favorite memories from this year’s journey is going from family to family after qualifying for the state tournament, hugging every mom and shaking hands with every dad. I thanked them for all they’ve done to help their daughters get this far, and each in their own way shared something in kind. 

In many ways large and small, this team has restored my soul. 

What has this team meant to you? 

Finally, there were memories that snuck up on me when I least expected it. I thought of those previous teams often as we honored some long-standing traditions for the first time. Whether it was our pregame circle in the same back hallways, or the hard and fast rule requiring the entire team to ride in a single elevator at the arena, I smiled every time I uttered the words, “this is the way we’ve always done it.” And though I wondered if our team would get tired of hearing about yesteryear, I learned in our exit interviews that it gave them confidence to know we had been there before. 

Every trip to the state tournament provides a snapshot in time. I was reminded of this the first time I stepped off the crowded elevator at the northeast entrance to the arena. It was here that families would convene to greet the team after we left the locker room. I followed the team out as the players waded through the crowd to find their parents, and without thinking, I started to do the same. Afterall, every other time I followed a team off this same elevator, my father could be found waiting for me somewhere in the background. It was both a fond memory, and an unexpected reminder of his passing in the time gone by. 

There is one final snapshot that provided meaning to this experience. In 2017, our oldest daughter was not quite three years old. There is a picture hanging on our living room wall of me holding Adelaide in my arms during a post game interview at center court following our last championship. It was an incredible moment for me. She doesn’t remember it at all.  

This time was special because she had a chance to make her own memories as she occupied the seat on the end of the bench, just as she had done all season long. While she did not come home with a medal around her neck, she brought home something no one else could see. 

Our spring break followed state tournament week and this year we elected to stay home and shelter in place. The weather was unseasonably warm for most of the week which allowed the kids to play outside more than they might normally this time of year. Every so often I peaked out the window to find them jumping up and down - first crossing home plate on the wiffle ball field - and later after making a shot on the hoop lowered to just the right height on the driveway. As I pressed my ear to the window I heard the triumphant shouts of Adelaide, now nine, and six-year old McKinleigh, practicing their state championship celebrations. 

What has this team meant to you? 

I guess you could say it’s meant a lot. 

Food for thought. 

Nate Sanderson 

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