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Etc.: Let the games begin
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Even though school doesn’t start until after Labor Day (thus marking the end of summer), high school sports begins in earnest this week.

High school sports are a staple of small-town life throughout the U.S., including, but not limited to, football. Next week’s fall sports preview, put together by sports editor (and former Lancaster quarterback) Jason Nihles, will focus on football, volleyball, soccer, cross country and swimming.

All you have to do to see the impact of high school sports is drive through a town with a high school late at night and see where a bunch of cars are parked. (That’s easier to do on fall Fridays by looking for where the bright lights are.) Montfort and Livingston will be sparsely populated because the area between the two is not. (Imagine if New Diggings still had a high school. Its teams were called the Midgets.)

I know people who prefer watching sports on TV because you get a better view from the multiple replays and from HD cameras in better position than the seats you’ve paid for. To me, though, sports is about the entire sensory experience — in the case of football, the marching bands (for instance, the UW Marching Band, the greatest college marching band on the planet), the brisk (or worse) weather, the smell of popcorn, the feeling of fan involvement by being there (in the case of the most hardcore, the feeling that your team will prevail if you just cheer hard enough) that is just not the same on TV.

The unusual thing about this season is that, due to the desire of high school football coaches to have a more normal postseason football schedule (i.e. no more Thursday–Tuesday–Saturday scheduling of the last regular-season game and, they hope, first two rounds of the playoffs) while not starting the season Aug. 1, there are eight, not nine, regular-season football games. The additional local oddity is that Platteville, which plays at the best stadium in the area, has only three home games.

I have been covering, in print or electronic media (sometimes simultaneously, since one of my career goals is to be paid more than once for the same work), high school sports most years since the mid-1980s. I’ve covered teams that won state, and I’ve covered teams that won not a single game.

The teams that get noticed are the teams that put hardware in the trophy case, of course. People remember fondly Platteville’s 1983 state football title, or Iowa–Grant’s 1977 football state title, or Potosi’s 1993 state baseball title, or Belmont’s 2002 state softball title. There are two definitions of a successful season — winning your conference (Potosi football and Platteville and Potosi volleyball last fall), and getting to state. I wrote “getting to state” and not “winning state” because once the disappointment of losing at state fades, the players realize the scope of the accomplishment of getting to state and that getting to state and losing beats not getting to state at all.

Trophies, however, are not the most important result of playing high school sports. Nor is a team’s win–loss record. Team sports at the high school level should be about working hard regardless of whether you get recognized for your work or accomplishments, learning to be a good teammate and team leader, understanding that team goals are more important than individual goals, and learning to move on from the last win, or loss, including immediately following the last win or loss.

The individual sports (even if they keep team scores) — girls swimming and cross country in the fall; boys swimming, wrestling and gymnastics in the winter; and boys golf and track and field in the spring — are about what the individual student–athlete has the skill and will to do. An athlete’s success is measured in doing more — jumping or throwing farther — or less — running or swimming a set distance faster. Individual sports get less attention, which means that the athlete’s success is up to the athlete and how hard he or she is willing to work, particularly on the days when the athlete doesn’t feel well or is tired or has other things to do.

Those are all skills that apply to adult life. High school sports aren’t the only place to learn those things; they can be found in such activities as music, drama, and other performance-oriented activities. (Even student publications — if you don’t think performance is involved in getting out an edition of a newspaper, you should watch the process take place.)

I’ve always felt the people who complain that school district budgets are too high because of cocurricular activities are misinformed about their actual cost to taxpayers and their actual benefits to their participants. Athletic fields and auditoriums are classrooms too. School spirit is an extension of having passion for something you’re involved with, and employers want passionate employees, not merely people who show up and punch in and out five days a week.

In covering a lot of teams over the years I’ve learned that what gets remembered the most isn’t the end — even the moment you hoist a trophy over your head while your school’s fans go bananas — but how you got there. Big wins over archrivals, big games, moments during games or practices, or pet coach phrases are all things the players remember after they forget their team’s record their junior year. I’ve covered teams that lost state title games, and I noticed the players seemed less upset about finishing second at state than in realizing their season, and in seniors’ cases their high school careers, had ended. Since most of the players you watch starting this week won’t go on to play college sports, that actually heightens the importance of their athletic events. Every game a student–athlete plays is one game closer to his or her last game.

If a calamity occurred and I was installed as the head coach of a high school football team, every week I would tell the players something probably similar to this: You get one chance to play this game today. Once tonight’s game is over, you can never play it again. And there are only nine* chances to play high school football, every season. So make this one count.