Friday, November 18, 2011

Not Tonight

There are nights when everything goes your way. Sometimes, you can do no wrong. The ball just bounces your way. There have been a few Friday nights this season where the Bobcats have had a little luck on their side. But not tonight.

Five times this year, the boys in orange and blue have battled their way to a victory, defeating what was really a better team. They somehow managed to pull out a win when the odds were stacked against them. But not tonight.

In time, those involved will look back on the season and truly appreciate what an accomplishment it really was. Making it this far is something that will be celebrated. The perspective will be different then, and the focus will shift from the disappointment over what we weren't able to do to pride in all that what we did. Soon, the guys will realize that losing in the 3rd round is nothing to hang their heads over, and eventually they too will be proud of what they have achieved this year. But not tonight.

Because tonight, hearts are broken. Tonight, it's hard to think about anything other than the fact that it's over. It was an unlikely run at best, but that doesn't make the defeat easier to accept. And, we are all proud of our Bobcats. But that doesn't make it hurt less.

The hardest part is saying goodbye, seeing those seniors play their last game, knowing the disappointment they feel. We've watched these guys grow up to be men over the past five years. They become like part of our family. Most will never comprehend the hours Coach has spent with these guys, either at practice or workouts or summer camps or making highlight films or watching films or preparing for practice and games. Yes, they are like family. And they aren't the only ones with broken hearts.

It will get easier as the days pass, because you realize that there are great things in store for these young men. You know you'll always be here in any way you can if any of them were to ever need you. You know that their lives have been changed for the better because of this game called football. You know that, while their playing days are over, they will always be Bobcats. Knowing these things makes it easier. But not tonight.

Congratulations to the Woodland Bobcats players and coaches on a great season.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Desserts for Tanner

Tomorrow night. Round 3. Number 3 Tanner comes to town. And in their minds, this game is already won.

The Rattlers are big, strong, skilled, and unchallenged so far this season. Their road to the round 3 game has been a cake walk. They are already thinking about round 4. But, what they don't know is on Friday night, we aren't serving cake.

It blows my mind that any team in 2A north would fail to recognize the Bobcats as a contender after what they have accomplished in recent years. They say, "Respect isn't given; it's earned." And, that's true. But you can't tell me that Woodland hasn't earned respect. The fact that they have survived the gauntlet that is 2A Region 5 to make the playoffs for 8 consecutive years should speak for itself. If that's not enough, don't forget the fact that our Cats have played in the championship game twice during that run. Need more? As a three seed, we have knocked off two playoff teams with higher seeds and better records already this season. Not only have they done so, but they've done it with class and sportsmanship and pride.

I think that speaks for itself. However, there's more to our team than measurable accomplishments. We are never the biggest, strongest, or fastest guys on the field. But, we have that thing you can't measure, that thing you can't teach. Our guys are fighters. Those of us who follow the team have seen it over and over. We beat teams we shouldn't. We do things that are impossible. We fight.

On Friday night, we will have another fight on our hands. This team is good. Really good. We'll have to be perfect. We'll have to be physical. We'll have to play the best game of the season. Because right now, the only advantage we seem to have over those guys is that WE know we have a chance. They certainly don't think we do. They haven't even paused to consider the possibility of losing to us.

While they might not lose, the guys in the green and black who have to stand toe to toe with our Bobcats will know, when they walk off that field, that they've been in a fight. And, if they aren't ready for the fight, it won't be cake they are eating. It'll be humble pie. Because, our guys don't quit, they aren't afraid, they're not pushovers. And, they don't take too kindly to being disrespected. The joke may be on you, Tanner.

No matter what happens tomorrow night, I am so proud of our Bobcats. The players and the coaches. What they have accomplished this season so far is to be commended. I can't wait to put on my orange and head out into the cold hours before kickoff and yell myself hoarse in support of our team. And, I hope I get to do the same thing next week.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Refusing to Lose

For every team, the season must inevitably come to an end. But for the 2011 Bobcats, it wouldn't be tonight.

Arriving at the game two hours early, braving the cold so I could get a seat, I watch the Bobcats during warm-ups. I was already shivering, but I could tell that our players didn't feel the cold. They were far too fired up for that. I knew then it was going to be a good game. But, I had no idea.

Fyffe had looked good on film. Big, fast, and fundamentally sound. But, they had not faced the caliber of competition that we do on a weekly basis. The question coming in to the night was how good are they. Coach had mentioned to me all week that he was worried about their defense. He knew they wouldn't make mistakes, so we couldn't either.

After a 3 and out, we forced a punt deep in our own territory to open the game. However, a fumble on our next play set up Fyffe's first touchdown. But the Bobcats  had an answer, and the game was tied at 7 at the half. Even on the scoreboard, the first half was really all Fyffe. They moved to ball on offense and made it difficult for us on defense.

Most people think that coaches go in at halftime and yell and scream and throw things. And certainly, some player motivation is part of the halftime routine. But, it's the adjustments the coaches make during those 20 minutes that can be the difference in the game. Whatever happened in there tonight, it worked. Fyffe took the opening kickoff of the second half, but the defense held. Our offense found a rhythm as well, and after a field goal with 5:20 remaining in the 3rd, we took the lead 10-7.

Another defensive stop put the ball back in the hands of QB Zach Barron and the Woodland offense. Mickey Howard ran the ball down the throat of the Devils defense. The touchdown drive put us up 17-7 with 1:10 to go in the 3rd quarter. It looked as though we had taken control of the game. Fyffe, however, had something to say about that. The Devils found the end zone but missed the PAT. 17-13, Woodland.

Barron drove the ball down the field, milking the play clock and relying on Howard and the other backs to carry the load. A McManus field goal, his second of the night, put us up 20-13 with 3:30 left in the game. For a second, I thought we had the game won.

Teams don't get to round 2 because they are quitters, though. And, if you want to win a playoff game, you'd better not forget how badly those guys on the other side of the ball want to win it too. Every snap, every down, every second. You had better be ready to make a play. A kickoff return by the Devils set them up deep in Bobcat territory. And, exactly one minute after our field goal, Fyffe scored a touchdown. The score 20-19, Fyffe went for two and the win. With 2:30 on the game clock, the scoreboard said Woodland 20, Fyffe 21.

I put my head in my hands and felt my heart drop. Two and a half minutes left in the game and maybe in the season. But, I wasn't ready to give up on my Bobcats. And neither were they.

Our guys were unbelievable. Starting the drive on the Fyffe 20, Barron connected with at least 3 different receivers as the Cats marched down the field. Everyone did his job. Making plays. Getting out-of-bounds. Fighting. Refusing to lose.

One minute, seventeen seconds on the clock - 4th and 4 on the Fyffe 35, the Bobcats convert. How? I still don't know. A few plays later, we have the ball first and goal with 15 seconds left and no timeouts. Barron goes to spike the ball and sees that the defender has left an opening. He carries the ball in for 6. The PAT is good. 27-21, Woodland.

A kickoff and two failed Fyffe pass attempts later, the Woodland fans storm the field to celebrate. We'd done it. We'd survived. Round 3. And, it's great to be a Woodland Bobcat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Last Game

Early in my senior year, I remember standing on the field on Friday night during the playing of the National Anthem by the Marching Aggie Band. I watched the flag climb to the top of the flag pole. Then I looked up into the night sky. At that moment I realized something. Soon, this would all end.

The inevitability of it all suddenly became so real to me. So, I decided to grab on to what I could. I soaked up that moment. I captured those memories and locked them away. And, I made it a point to repeat this during every game that season. Once the flag reached the top of the pole, I stared up at the moon and stars determined not to let anything ever take this away from me. Even now, so many years after our devastating second round loss, I can always find my way back. From my seat in the bleachers, I watch the flag wave and then look to the sky. Only now, I close my eyes. And there I am. In the Victory Line on Upchurch Field wearing the red and black. Ribbon in my hair, poms in my hand (red in right), and Aggie Pride(and now Bobcat Pride) in my heart. That's how big this is.

Nothing in life can ever compare to the experience of being under those Friday night lights. The problem is, most will never truly understand the magnitude of it all until it's over. At the end of every season, I witness a heart wrenching scene. The end. I see young men stand face to face with the realization that they will never again walk out onto that field in that uniform. It's over. You can't get it back. It's too late. You see it in their faces, the sorrow and the what ifs. And every year I think - if you could take this disappointment, the horrible feeling, and bottle it up so that the seniors next year would remember it, what a difference it could make. But you can't.

The season is long. By now, our Bobcats are battle-weary and bruised, but the fight is far from won. Somehow, they have to look within themselves and find whatever it is that makes them give their all week after week after week. The road to the championship is a daunting one. It may seem, at times, like it would be easier to give up. But, how can you give up now? The thing you've been working for since May, the thing that seemed like a far-fetched impossibility back then, is 4 games away. Already, only 16 2A teams get to take the field tomorrow night. We are among them. And make no mistake about it, those who aren't playing would give anything to trade places with us. They would gladly practice all night in the cold rain to get to suit up one more time. It's over for them. Are we ready to join them?

Tomorrow night, our Bobcats face a Fyffe team that is sick and tired of the 2A Region 5 team ending its season. They aren't ready to turn in their jerseys. They aren't ready to quit. They will make the nearly 4 hour trip to Woodland, get off that bus, and do their best to make sure they aren't the ones with tears in their eyes and broken hearts at the night's end. What are we going to do about it?

Seniors, you'd better soak up every second of your last game ever. Or you'd better do everything within your power to make darn sure it's not the last one. Bobcat pride never dies, but championship hopes can. It's your field. Your game. Your call. Are you ready for it to be over?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

How to Win a Playoff Game

Zach Barron intercepts a Colbert Heights pass attempt
Our Woodland Bobcats made the 4 hour trip to face the 2 seed, Colbert Heights, this past Friday night. By the end of the first quarter, everyone in the stadium knew that the Cats had come to win. The offense had already put up 21 points and the defense was smothering any Wildcat attempt to put together a drive before twelve minutes had run off the game clock. They continued playing like a team on a mission until the white-shirted subs came in during the forth quarter with a comfortable 41-14 lead. It was the best I'd see them play so far this year. That's how you attack a playoff game. They made it look easy, but I know it never is.

You can't just show up and win a game, especially during the playoffs. The work began on the weekend when the coaching staff spent hours on end breaking down film, studying formations and tendencies, and planning strategies until 2 a.m. Then on Monday, the team went to work. It's not just the hours spent on the practice field. Its more than that. It's the attitude and focus of every player on the team, buying in to what the coaches are teaching, buying in to what they are working for. You win playoff games through focus and preparation. Playoff games can be lost on a practice field. But they aren't necessarily won there.

Both teams have worked hard all week and now it's game time. As a high school cheerleader, I used to yell, "You've got to want it to win it, and we want it bad!" But, the truth is, the other guys want it too. You don't get to win because you want to. You win because you do everything within your power to make sure that your season doesn't end tonight. The O-line blocks a little better and fights in the trenches all night long, because they know that this is where the game is won. The backs run harder, shaking off tackles, fighting for every extra inch, because they know that an inch can be the difference in the game. The quarterback executes the plays with a confidence and focus often lacking in men twice his age. He feels the pressure and feeds off of it. He knows that his 'brothers' depend on his leadership. The defense relentlessly pursues its opponent, refusing to allow their offense to take this game from them. This is our game. We decide who wins it. The Seniors take their game to another level, making a statement, "This will not be our last game. Not tonight."

When you play your best, everyone focused and doing his job, it's your game to win. I'm so proud of the way our team fought Friday night, with pride and determination and class. When you play like that, no matter the outcome of the game, you can't really lose.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Coach's Responsibility

Sports teach. They teach the value of hard work and working together. They teach about preparation, sacrifice, success, and disappointment. Sports teach young athletes to push themselves and believe in themselves and so many other important lessons that are difficult to replicate any other way. And, sports teach responsibility. At least, they should.

If you ask me, the failure of people to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences which follow is among the major problems in our society. We are constantly looking to pass the buck, to point a finger, to place the blame on anyone else. We make excuses for ourselves. It's human nature, it seems. It happens in life and on the field of play. Something goes wrong and it's our fault - because of something we did or maybe didn't do - but we want to blame someone else. The line should have blocked. The receiver should have caught the ball. The linebacker should have made the tackle. And so forth. Of course they say, what doesn't come out in the wash, comes out in the rinse (or for our purposes, the film room). Teammates depend on each other. Teams are more successful when each player is responsible for doing his or her part. You don't make excuses, you do it right next time. See, sports teach.

And, coaches are great teachers. Or, they should be. And, here it comes: my comments on the Clay-Chalkville debacle. If you aren't familiar, Clay-Chalkville was ranked number 1 in 6A and undefeated heading into the playoffs just a week ago. Then, it was reported that they were playing an ineligible player, who had been expelled from another public high school for a year. The AHSAA investigated and determined that the player was, in fact, ineligible and stripped Clay of its 9 wins. Since then, the school has filed for an injunction which would overturn the AHSAA ruling and allow them to participate in the playoffs. A judge granted the injunction, putting Clay in and the team that had gained a playoff berth due to the initial ruling back out. Now this team has filed a suit.

By now, the entire situation is a complete mess. Somewhere in the middle of it all, something important is being overlooked. Clay is making every attempt to shift the blame to someone else in order to avoid the consequences. The player was ineligible. Someone dropped the ball. The AHSAA places the responsibility of determining eligibility statuses on each member school. Basically, the AD (which is usually the head coach) has to do his job. I feel for Clay's players. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to have such an amazing season only to see it stripped away because of something like this. But rules are rules. Someone signed his name on a document declaring this kids as eligible when he wasn't. Stop making excuses and pointing fingers and start apologizing to the kids you let down. Use this to teach your athletes how important it is to be responsible, do your job, and when you've made a mistake, face it like a man.

As if they didn't have enough to do, coaches have the added responsibility of being examples for their athletes. They must not lose sight of what is really important. And yes, there are more important things than playoff games, like the kind of men they are creating. Fortunately, I think there are more good coaches than bad. And, Woodland, in case you didn't know, has some of the best.