In high school sports, the best thing about March is the madness.
The second-best thing might be the sadness.
Strange as might seem, tears are nearly as intrinsic to this month on the scholastic sports calendar as cheers. Losing in heart-wrenching fashion, like winning in thrilling style, provides an opportunity for one last emotional connection between players, coaches, and fans.
Ultimately, victory and defeat both allow for one vital thing.
“Closure,” Methacton High senior center Jeff Woodward said of the importance of playing that final game, win or lose.
Woodward believed Methacton was good enough to win a PIAA Class 6A state championship in boys’ basketball this season. He might have been right, since the Warriors won their last eight games by an average of 25.8 points while capturing the Pioneer Athletic Conference and District 1 titles, and advancing to the quarterfinal round of the state tournament.
But the burly center, a Colgate recruit, is realistic enough to know that Methacton also could have lost in its next game against Philadelphia Catholic League power Roman Catholic, or in the state semifinals, or in the state finals.
What’s maddening for Woodward and for fellow senior stars such as West Chester East’s Andrew Carr and Bonner-Prendergast’s Tyreese Watson, is that they likely will never know.
“We’re always going to be looking back and wondering, ‘What would have happened?’” Carr said. “It’s unfinished. It’s just this unknown ending.”
Woodward, Carr and Watson, along with their teammates and members of several other Philadelphia-area boys’ and girls’ squads, are stuck in a sort of limbo. They are members of basketball teams that, on paper, are still alive in the PIAA state tournament, which was suspended for at least two weeks on March 12.
They are holding out hope — increasingly far-fetched, they know — that one day they will see a Tweet or get a text with news that the PIAA plans to re-start the tournaments and allow them to finish their careers on the court.
“I’ll play in June,” Carr said.
But these are smart kids. They realize that possibility seems to dim every day, with more discouraging news about the spread of the coronavirus, with more official word about the need for social distance.
They know the much more likely scenario is that someday soon, the PIAA will announce the official cancellation of the state basketball tournaments as a public-health measure.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Watson said. “It’s tough to process, to be honest.”
The situation is slightly different in New Jersey, since the organization overseeing high school sports cancelled the state tournaments on March 12. That left teams such as Camden High and Timber Creek on the brink of capturing state titles but with no chance to finish the job.
“It’s like they left it a cliffhanger,” said Timber Creek senior Justin Bladen, whose team was one win away from its first state championship.
Camden senior Lance Ware, whose team won its last 25 games and was heavily-favored to capture the fabled program’s 12th state title, said the uncertainty would haunt players, especially the seniors.
“I think I would rather have lost than not get the chance to play,” Ware said. “We’ll all be asking ourselves for the rest of our lives, ‘What if we got to play those games?’”
Watson was convinced his team was ready to capture a state title, that his senior season was going to end with a shiny trophy in his hand and thousand-watt smile on his face.
Bonner-Prendergast has a 20-5 record. The Friars won their first two games in the PIAA Class 4A tournament by a combined 73 points.
“We were really confident we were going to go on a state-championship run,” Watson said. “We all believed that. We all knew we could do it this year.”
West Chester East is 28-2, the best record in program history, and loomed as a legitimate contender in Class 5A. The Vikings’ success ignited wide-spread and enthusiastic support among the student body and the community.
“This was our goal from Day One, the first practice,” Carr said. “To be so close and to have it taken away, it’s just so hard to take.”
Methacton is 28-2 as well, also the best mark in program history for the Class 6A squad. The Warriors’ remarkable run engaged schoolmates, townsfolk and alumni, turning their games into green-and-white-colored social events.
“We had such an opportunity for our team, our school, our community and it was taken away,” Woodward said.
Woodward, Carr and Watson are four-year members of their respective programs. They’ve put in countless hours of work — all those practices, all those games, all those individual workouts, all that off-season stuff — with the goal of finishing their careers with a championship.
They all knew their careers would end. When the state tournaments began, they all knew the clock was loudly ticking — last March, last practices, last bus rides, last times pulling on those uniforms, and running out on the court.
But that only heightened their focus, concentrated their commitment. That urgency was perhaps the best part of this time of their lives — the stakes were so high, the opportunity was so great, the air was so charged with excitement.
“That’s really all we wanted, a chance to put it all out there on the court,” said Carr, a rangy forward and University of Delaware recruit.
They wanted the madness.
They would have accepted the sadness.
These guys have been playing sports their whole lives. They’ve lost games. They’ve moved on after tough defeats.
They would have done the same in this case. They might have cried in bitter disappointment at the outcome, but they would have known they were given the chance to compete to the final buzzer.
Now they can only wonder what might have happened.
Either would have been preferable to neither.
“I think the toughest part is we don’t have closure,” Woodward said. “If we lost, we lost, but we still would have been able to be in the locker room for the last time with our teammates. We still would have known you are taking that uniform off for the last time, that you just played your last game.