Life lessons come hard on the playing field

It wasn’t totally unexpected. I knew it would be difficult because I’ve seen it before, but the piercing finality of it all packs quite a punch.
The Vardaman Rams’ soccer season came to an end Monday night with an 8-1 loss to a very talented Madison St. Joe team in the state quarterfinals of Class 1A/2A/3A.
We entered the game knowing the odds were stacked against us, but I must say, I’m not certain our players understood the challenge in front of them nor the finality that would come from a loss.

Joel McNeece

This was only our second season of soccer at Vardaman High after starting the program last season. We weren’t eligible to participate in the postseason in our inaugural season so we entered the year knowing exactly when our season would come to a close. That was actually easier to coach.
We prepared for it, talking often of wanting to make the most of that final time of the year walking on to the field. It was a big win at Tishomingo County and we celebrated afterwards and throughout the long bus ride home. It put an appropriate exclamation point on a successful first campaign.

Monday night was different. This was the playoffs.
I’ve covered high school sports for a quarter century for newspapers and seen up close the extreme highs of state championships in every sport and the lows of being knocked out of the postseason when you believed you were good enough to win it all.

People of Calhoun County still frequently reference the North Half title battles of Bruce and Calhoun City football teams in the 1990s. My wife Lisa has said often her first memory of those games was the carnage afterwards of players strewn across the cold, wet field lying face down overwhelmed by the pain of losing that final game, especially to a rival.
That’s the thing about making it into the postseason. Only one team gets to walk off the field at the end of the season with a win. There’s a new intensity, pressure to every second of every game. Every possession means so much more than it did in the regular season. Every turnover is more painful, every point more celebrated.

I was visiting with Calhoun City Lady Wildcat Basketball Coach Rob Fox recently talking about exactly that. At the time, his team had lost only one game all season, that was to Oxford in early December.
Since that single loss they hadn’t even had a close game. Every night on the court they were winning by 15, 20, 30 even 40 points.

Coach Fox was having to get more innovative in practice to find ways of challenging his players so they wouldn’t become complacent and expect it to always be so easy.
He noted the region tournament that starts this week for them at East Webster. They will play Thursday night and teams they beat by 20-plus in the regular season he expects to give them a true challenge now when the season is on the line.

“You know what it’s like when you get into the postseason,” Coach Fox told me. “It’s different. You have to be able to handle that.”
Our soccer team handled it well at Choctaw Central the week before when we recorded our first playoff victory. It was obvious from the kids’ reaction after the win they could feel the difference from the regular season.

It was also clear Monday night the loss was much different than the six prior we’ve experienced over the last two years. After those defeats we walked off the field more determined to correct mistakes and win the next one. Monday, it was the brutality of the playoffs. There is no next one, at least not until November.
There were tears. There were hugs. There was emotion all around. It was another painful life lesson that sports often provides. Things don’t always go your way. You put forth your best, leave it all on the field and walk off with your head high. That’s often easier said than done.

Stadium lights were shutting off and I was walking off the field with a few players when one of my seventh graders asked, “When do we get to practice again?” Not soon enough.