Lasting impression

If there’s anything I’ve learned in 20 years of covering high school athletics, it’s the value of patience, persistence and perspective in sports.

Almost always in that order.

I’ve accepted the ”three P” philosophy slowly – and at times begrudgingly – but steadily, both as a fan and an observer. It’s partially a defense mechanism to preserve your own sanity, but mainly, the gradual result of getting older and seeing that the ball tends to bounce in unpredictable directions.

Sometimes players, coaches and fans are never afforded a happy ending. Even through patience and persistence, the perspective embodies something other than the reward they are seeking; the hard work doesn’t lead to a championship. The dogged determination doesn’t tangibly pay off.

Fate won’t follow a script.

The latest, sharpest curveball was dealt to the Newell-Fonda girls basketball team last Friday night in Des Moines. For the second consecutive year, head coach Dick Jungers’ Mustangs suffered an excruciating single-possession loss in the Class 1A finals.

Standing in the press room afterward felt a lot like it did following St. Edmond’s heartbreaking boys basketball title-game setbacks in 2004 and ’12, or Fort Dodge’s crushing football playoff defeat in 2010, or the Dodgers’ bitter state experiences in softball (2002) and baseball (2009), to name a few that immediately come to mind. Those moments tend to stick with you – not just that it happened, but how it happened.

Newell-Fonda’s runner-up repeat is the latest cold serving of reality to enter the area’s memory bank. Like their predecessors, the Mustangs had so many things going for them; all the stars seemed to be aligned for the golden sunset ride. Like their predecessors, Jungers and his players hit another wall of adversity rather than experiencing the breakthrough victory that seemed to be theirs for the taking.

One-and-done scenarios in sports are both a blessing and a curse. While a winner-take-all format ups the odds of an underdog’s chances on any given night, it also means the best program – or maybe even the most deserving program – sometimes doesn’t walk away with a title. We see it all the time in basketball especially, whether it be at prep tournaments or in the Big Dance.

Just the other day, former Iowa Hawkeye Greg Brunner wrote about the 2006 NCAA Tournament loss to Northwestern State that will forever haunt his class of seniors. Brunner said he still wakes up in a cold sweat at night thinking about the devastating conclusion to an otherwise banner career.

While the Mustangs may still be agonizing over last Friday’s setback and the wounds are still too fresh to start the healing process, they should know that they aren’t alone. Newell-Fonda isn’t the first program to deal with such an acute level of pain, and unfortunately, they won’t be the last.

So what is the light at the end of the tunnel? The fact that these kids played, first and foremost, for each other. Did the aforementioned teams want to win titles? Badly. Desperately. But would a different trophy have changed their feelings about the time they spent together? Absolutely not.

Jungers said it best, acknowledging that the night was one of mixed emotions regardless of the outcome. There is just as much – if not more – pain in the finality of it all. Knowing all of the work, sacrifice, close relationships and bonding experiences are suddenly over stings in a way that trumps any disappointment on the field or court.

In the long run, memories are more about the journey and less defined by the end result. That’s what molds a person’s sense of perspective.

So don’t ever call these seasons a failure, or assume expectations weren’t met. True success is found along the road that brings programs to their final destination, and the stops they cherish along the way. Championships are nice, but companionship is what lasts.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net