It's been nearly six weeks since the basketball season ended. It doesn't seem like it's been that long, but when I think about it - it has.
March 13th. 41 days ago. There is a reason I can remember that.
Three years ago I became the 8th grade boys' basketball coach at Pleasant Valley. In 2007-08, Coach Mike Wertman and I handled the 7th and 8th grade teams respectively. The last two years I have been lucky enough to coach with the 'Mayor of Brodheadsville' himself - Mr. Matty Gould.
We finished 13-12 my first year. The kids I had then are about to suit up for varsity next year. Let's see if they learned anything. Last year we were 9-12 and completely underachieved. I know it and the kids know it. Fortunately, they had a better year as freshmen this past season.
I've been trying to get a picture of this year's team in the paper for a few weeks now, but every picture I have been able to find won't come out right in the paper. Luckily for me, I write for the paper. Can you say loop-hole?
Why was I trying to get our picture in the paper, you ask? Let me start at the beginning…
2009-10 definitely didn't start out well. The guys and I dropped our first two games to Southern Lehigh and East Stroudsburg North - both by two points. The kids weren't ready to play against SL. It was obvious in our five first-quarter points. Then we had 21 turnovers at North. That will do it. And not to make excuses or anything, but I was missing a kid who would go on to be a MVP.
0-2 out of the gate. Not good, considering this group of kids was 19-0 the year before and even beat my 8th grade team in the Pocono Tournament. We were about a week into the season and I already felt as if I underachieved as a coach. Yeah, their PG from a year ago got moved up to freshmen. Yeah, it was only the first two games of the year. But it didn't matter. We lost. Twice!
I didn't dwell on it long though. I had to do something. So I used it as motivation. Before our next game at Palisades, I wrote "0-2" on a pad and asked the kids if they liked that record. According to legendary Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are. We were 0-2 and needed to do something about it. And we did.
We managed to beat Palisades, East Stroudsburg South and Nazareth (one-point OT game - crazy) to get to 3-2 before our match-up with the 'Evil Empire' - Pocono Mt. West.
Now I say 'Evil Empire' with the utmost jest. West is like the Yankees in the sense that they beat everybody. They press. They are physical. They have the athletes and are coached very well. I was 0-5 against them my first two years, but it was alright. I had 'the team.' Or so I thought.
So we get to their place early and have to wait for the locker room. Meanwhile, my kids are watching them warm up and I can see the intimidation in their eyes. Right then it was Game Over. We went on to score nine points. They had 31. We were embarrassed. The kids and I talked afterward about man-ing up and wanting to compete. Following that game I told Matt that I was never going to beat West. Little did I know - it would be our last loss of the year.
We took what we learned from that game and got better. Some wins were easy. Some wins were hard earned, like the one we had against Pocono Mt. East. We were down nine points heading into the fourth (that's a lot in 8th grade) and managed to come back and win in OT. We held them to zero points in the fourth. Surprised even me.
The big 'W' came against West at home. After the previous debacle, I felt like I didn't need to say anything. I just wrote one word on the board. "Believe." If you don't believe you have a chance, then you never had one. We played the game we needed to play - slow, under control and decisive - and won, 24-20. Finally. Talk about taking a monkey off someone's back.
Through it all we won our last 12 games to finish 15-3. We wanted another crack at North, but never got to play them because of snow.
Now it was tourney time… Great Pocono Basketball Tournament time. Before Matt's first game, I was flipping through the information booklet and noticed that no Pleasant Valley 7th or 8th grade boys' team had ever won the tournament. Right then and there I found our motivation.
We were going to make history. The kids were going to be the first 8th grade team in 38 years to win it all. I was going to be the first 8th grade coach to win it all.
I broke it down into a three step process. Game one, game two and game three. We couldn't get to the next step without concentrating on the one before it.
Step one was against West's 7th grade team. They play just like their 8th grade team, but didn't have the size to really match up with us. I had two starters over 6-2 and my three-man was about 5-10. Our 7th grade had just lost to West's 8th grade the game before, so it was nice to return the favor.
Step two was Stroudsburg. We had beaten them twice earlier in the year, but they wouldn't matter if we lost this one. So we started out shooting like nine-percent from the field. The kids were freaking out, so I called a TO, explained to them the law of averages and told them to chill. From that point on, we played hard and things took care of themselves.
Step three at last. The championship game. We were right where we wanted to be playing for what we wanted to have. And it was only fitting that we had to go through West.
I was nervous before the game. I'll admit it. It was the biggest game I had ever coached in. Matty had to keep reinforcing me on the ride in. It wasn't that I didn't believe. It was more that I had no physical say in what was about to happen. It was in the kids' hands. 13 and 14-year-olds' hands. Who knows what was going to happen.
Still, I didn't let it show. A coach never can. We were in the locker room before hand and told the kids this was it. Time to make history. There were 200 people in the stands and around the baselines and they were all there to watch us play. It was go time.
The game started so fast and we were doing so well that I didn't even bother to look at the scoreboard. It didn't matter six minutes into the game. When I did look up - I had to do a double take. We were up 10-1. I was so into the game I didn't even realize it.
But West didn't go away. We all knew they wouldn't. We went into the half up a few points, but they managed to gain some momentum in the third quarter and got to within one mid-way through the fourth.
We had the ball under our hoop and needed to make a play. Matt and I drew up this inbound play that had been working against their 3-2 zone. It worked perfectly, as we got an easy lay-up out of it. I feel that bucket gave us back the momentum and won the game for us.
In the end, we made our free throws down the stretch and took care of the ball. The last few seconds seemed to take forever, but when the clock hit zero we all went bonkers. 28-23 Pleasant Valley. History.
It feels great as a coach when you have some sort of validation in that what you are teaching to the players is correct. We all worked hard and deserved what we earned.
With that, I would like to dedicate this column to my kids and thank them for a season that I will never forget.
They are: Marquis Brown (All-tournament team, MVP), Mark Cunningham, Zach Deegan, Jarius Hosier, Brandon Leap (All-tourney team), Dakota Neubert (All-tourney team), Sam Newhall (All-tourney team), Eric Provosty, Pierce Roden, Jon Weaver and Austin Yoffredo.