Half-Baked: Exciting, sure, but what does it mean?

Photo by Brent Baker — Tears flowed freely for John Stedtfeld and the Tonasket boys basketball team after the dramatic finish to their 49-game Caribou Trail League losing streak on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Photo by Brent Baker — Tears flowed freely for John Stedtfeld and the Tonasket boys basketball team after the dramatic finish to their 49-game Caribou Trail League losing streak on Thursday, Feb. 2.

When it comes to high school sports, it’s always about much more than just the final score.

Admittedly, moments like those following Tonasket’s streak-breaking, 56-55 victory over Omak last Thursday that make the value of school sports easier appreciate.

It was a sweet victory for the Tigers, to be sure. And while it’s easy to get excited about a one-point buzzer-beater, the depth of emotion in the post-game celebration spoke to a lot more than just a victory in a game.

This wasn’t about one night, but about a four-year journey that included buckets of sweat, tears of frustration, hours of work, endless miles of travel, and a commitment to find a way to improve even with the odds stacked against them.

Overstating the case?

I don’t think so.

The value of athletics in the schools is that it gives kids a chance to learn about themselves, to dedicate themselves to something that stirs their passions, to learn, to fail, to fall, and to get back up again. To work within a team or group concept, to put aside personal agendas for the good of the whole.

To get knocked down 49 straight times and get up that 50th time and try yet again.

To finally experience the feeling that comes with reaching a long-elusive goal.

Tigers coach Glenn Braman didn’t see the win so much as a notch on the belt as another step in a long, slow journey. There have been pitfalls, multiple setbacks and the criticism that inevitably comes with a 49-game league losing streak, but rewards, too.

“I think of all the summer basketball games, all the miles we’ve logged together, going to tournaments and camps, all the hours in the gym,” he said. “I can’t tell the kids ‘thank you’ enough, or express how much I love them. Just to thank them for the time, effort and hard work, it doesn’t seem like words carry enough meaning for that.”

The win-loss column is a stark, black-and-white way to measure success, and in a few years each of those guys will experience being judged that way in the real world, when their livelihoods carry greater consequences than the score of a game. It’s tough to measure progress when the numbers pile up in the L column, hard to feel good about a 10 point loss instead of a 35-pointer. But learning to handle that is a life skill that’s pretty tough to get from a textbook.

“Two years ago we lost by about 35 points a game,” Braman said. “Last year we got it down to about 15 points. This year, in most of our games it’s been one bad quarter that’s cost us.”

Improvement. Progress. Just not the result the Tigers were working for, not until Thursday.

Last summer, the Tigers participated in a camp that included a “one-minute tournament,” which were one minute games that started with a one-point score differential to teach teams how to make plays in the clutch.

“We won that tournament against some really good teams,” Braman said. “We talked about keeping it close through the whole game, that if we did that, we could win. We had the bracket from last summer to prove it. And that’s what it was tonight.”

Fact is, it’s tough to get to that point in a game when the other teams have far more raw athletic talent than you do. The Tigers don’t have a spring-laden Tyler Harrod (Cascade), whose waistband was hitting the back of Lazaro Ortega’s head when he went up for rebounds. Or a 6-5 Joe Townsend (Okanogan), or even a player like Omak’s Joseph LaGrou, who would be the tallest player on Tonasket’s team, can handle the ball like a guard and attack the rim like a power forward. And certainly no one like Chelan’s Joe Harris, who graduated two years ago and jumped right into the University of Virginia’s starting lineup as a freshman.

A bunch of scrappy 5-10 guys against Cashmere’s stable of athletes, no matter how you coach them up, is going to have to have a pretty remarkable outing just to stay in the game.

So barring an accident of genetics, or a 6-9 Ty Egbert-type moving into the district, the odds will stay stacked against this team for the foreseeable future, as long as the Tigers’ top athletes are recruited by colleges for their track and cross country prowess.

The fact that the nine guys still wearing varsity uniforms keep coming back for more both says a lot about them, but also provides valuable experience when life goes off the rails you have to will yourself to press on when you’d rather not.

“This is a tremendous group of kids,” Braman said. “Their work ethic, their desire to prove people wrong, their willingness to battle through adversity. They have such a never-say-die attitude. They kept believing they could do it.”

Braman pulled a picture from his back pocket, a snapshot of the last team that won a CTL game in 2008.

“The seniors of the past few years were great kids too,” he said. “This is for all of them too, because without the work they put in, this wouldn’t have happened.

“I wanted to have these guys with me for this,” he added, pointing to the picture. “It’s all about the support we’ve had. The parents driving kids to summer camps, making dinners, coaching the youth program. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work from everyone over the last few years, not just players and coaches.”

And it shows what can happen after you’ve been knocked down 49 times, but get up that 50th time and come back for more.