Thursday, June 17, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World -- Tournament Time

It's the apex of every season ... the culmination of an entire year's worth of hard work, effort, bumps, bruises, highs and lows.

We're talking tournament time. And it doesn't matter what level you're talking about. Sports tournaments are the ultimate in excitement and drama, whether we're talking about tonight's Celtics-Lakers NBA Game 7 final, the Big Dance or last night's state high school lacrosse final between St. John's Prep of Danvers and Duxbury.

People who know me will wonder ... Lacrosse? When did Krause become a lacrosse fan.

You can relax. Krause is not a lacrosse fan. Well, I should say that with the caveat that any sport that puts on a good show is fine with me. One of the only reasons I don't really care for soccer (well besides the incessant drone of the vuvuzelas) is that there seems to be no point to it. Nobody scores.

I understand that the rules make scoring difficult -- especially when we're talking about elite levels. But the lack of scoring -- at least to action-oriented Americans like me, who only understand immediate gratification and have no patience for the sublime (insert sarcasm emoticon here) -- translates into lack of drama.

To me, sports appeal first to our sense of drama and second to our sense of provincialism. When the Red Sox face the Yankees 19 times a year, it's not simply two baseball teams going at it. It's Boston against New York ... and the different clashes of their cultures and personality.

When the Celtics take the court tonight against the Lakers, it'll be Boston vs. L.A. -- substance (us) versus style (them). East Coast reality vs. West Coast dilettantes.

That's what sells these games. Not just that they're two teams.

When two high school teams play on Thanksgiving, especially in public schools, they're not just playing for themselves. They're playing for the honor of their communities. That's what makes it special.

You put that together with a good game, with enough scoring, and enough momentum shifts that result from scoring, and you have yourself an event. Absent one of those two ingredients, as the police would say, nothing to see here.

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, nobody played lacrosse. I don't think I even saw a lacrosse stick, up close and personal, until I got into college because that's what lacrosse was to me: one of those preppy college sports where everyone wore striped polo shirts and shorts.

But when a school in your coverage area makes a state final, you have go. So I went. To Harvard Stadium. Now, I know Harvard's had endowment issues ... but even with a historic decline last year, it's still over $25 billion. The athletic department has enough money to put artificial turf on the ground of Harvard Stadium (this, I think, would be like re-sodding centre court at Wimbledon with fake turf, but, hey, that's just me), and to expand its facilities farther into Allston (at least judging from all the earth moving equipment I saw there). But it can't afford an elevator to the press box at Harvard Stadium?

Holy moly! Now, I had gastric bypass surgery last year and have lost 120 pounds. I can do a solid hour on the elliptical cross trainer. If I don't do that, I walk at least three miles a day. I'm all of a sudden a physical fitness fiend.

I'm happy to say I made the stairs ... without much of a problem, really (actually, with cranky knees, going down the stairs was a lot worse). But come on, Harvard. Those stairs are a heart attack waiting to happen. I'm surprised, really, that this hasn't already happened. It's been a while since I covered football the Hallowed Grounds. I think the last time I had to climb those stairs was in 1984, during a U.S. Olympic soccer preliminary, when Canada beat Cameroon.

Funny, the things you remember. I remember it not because it was a great game (it was 3-2, Canada, which, in terms of soccer, was a slugfest) but because of the reporter from Cameroon who sat next to me ... who was livid at what he considered an outrage on behalf of the officials. I don't know what he was complaining about, but whatever it was, he was adamant ... and loud.

"There is shame," he said, screaming into the phone (apparently dictating a story to his paper). "There is shame. Shame at Harvard Stadium."

I guess, to him, the idea of a North American team ... and from Canada, no less ... beating an African team in the "Beautiful Game," was just too much to bear. I so wanted to tell him, "buck up, pal, at least it wasn't the Americans."

(Though something tells me that, to him, Canadian ... American ... what's the difference?).

Anyway, back to lacrosse. I've seen probably a handful of lacrosse games in my life ... most of them local. Only once -- back in the 70s, when there was something in Boston called "box lacrosse," did I see anything beyond the local level. Box lacrosse was like arena football ... played in a venue for which it clearly wasn't suited. Box lacrosse would be like playing soccer in a gym (which they actually do in youth soccer leagues). You need a big field in both, as running around and spacing is one of the key ingredients to both. It's a bit tougher to do in a crowded environment.

So I clearly didn't get a terrific idea of what lacrosse was all about watching the Boston Bolts play in the Boston Garden.

(And by the way, who in hell came up with that name?)

So for me, this was a treat. And, as friends and colleagues who have heard talk about my ambivalence toward lacrosse kept telling me, it was a chance to see the game as it was meant to be played.

I will say that the two teams did not disappoint. Duxbury had won the state championship in its division for the past six years. St. John's lost to the Dragons last year on a last-second goal. So in many respects, this was turning into quite the rivalry.

Again, this is only my perception, but to me, high school lacrosse (or lax as is the headling abbeviation) has always been a way for football and hockey players to stay in shape during the off-season. It's rarely -- even now -- a high school kid's No. 1 sport. That's because it's still growing in popularity. But I've noticed, as an editor, that lacrosse makes for great pictures. I'm never hesitant to send a photographer out to cover a lacrosse match because there is a lot of action and movement ... which is a wonderful formula for good graphics.

I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that I went to St. John's Prep, though there was a while I was up there that a velociraptor attacked a bunch of us at football practice. No. Seriously, I graduated in 1971, long ago, perhaps ... but not that long ago.

I've attended a few Prep state title games, but haven't seen them win one since 2000, when the baseball team won its second straight championship. I'm beginning to think that I am not only an alumni of this school, but a jinx extraordinaire.

It didn't look promising in the first half, as The Prep went into halftime trailing, 7-3, and looking pretty much outclassed the whole day. Once again, I was left muttering that just once I'd like to see my school win one of these things. There was the 2002 Super Bowl in which The Prep went onto the field as the clearly superior team ... and came off the field losers to Everett High. There was the 2004 Division 1A hockey semifinal that we lost, in overtime, to Arlington Catholic. And there was the 2005 state Division 1 hockey final ... lost to Marshfield ... when we let a kid skate all the way down, untouched, for the winning goal.

Just this past winter, The Prep had one of the state's best basketball players (Pat Connaughton), but came up short in the sectional final at the Boston Garden. My kingdom, then, to see them win a state title at least once.

So, a 7-3 halftime deficit was not making my mood any better.

The Prep spent much of the second half climbing back into the game, which -- of course -- made me snap to attention. Twice, they got within a goal ... and twice the gave it right back, which, if you know anything about sports, is somewhat like being handed the keys to the kingdom and dropping them down the sewer.

After getting it to 8-7, Duxbury scored two quick ones (the 10th one a horrible goal that had the Prep goalie slamming his stick against the side of the net in frustration).

But The Prep kept going forward, tying it again at 10-10 with less than a minute to go (55.7 seconds to be precise). But Duxbury, with about 20 seconds to go, went ahead 11-10, and the Dragons were already celebrating on the sideline. After all, who scores in a lacrosse game with 20 seconds left?

As it turns out, The Prep. One of their best players, Colin Blackwell (there's a real lacrosse name) hit the post on a shot, and teammate Garrett Campbell picked up the loose ball and scored with 7.6 seconds left.

Duxbury couldn't match that, so we went into overtime.

I was kind of torn here. It was a great game. And yes, it gave me a better appreciation for lacrosse. Now, at least, I don't have to view lacrosse merely as the one sport where hosting team parties with strippers is a sanctioned event (that line sank like a stone in front of the lacrosse-crazed writers in the press box last night).

But overtimes and The Prep? Not promising. It just never seems to work out.

In overtime, the match clearly channeled a good basketball or hockey game: The defense came up with a play and led to a quick transition. Chris Coady (who is also the quarterback of the football team) blocked a shot, and got the ball out to teammate James Fahey on the wing. Fahey ran all the way downfield with not a soul near him (helped by teammate Campbell who set the equivalent of a monster pick in the middle of the field to keep him clear). Fahey bore in, shot, and scored. And I finally got to see my old school win one (take that, Steely Dan).

I'm telling you. The Celtics may win tonight ... they may lose. The Red Sox can win another World Series ... the Patriots another Super Bowl and the Bruins -- someday -- may win a Stanley Cup.

But there is nothing ... nothing ... more fun than watching kids celebrate. You see these moments of spontaneity ... of unbridled glee ... and it makes you remember why you went into this business, and what makes it so much fun.

Of course, there's a flip side to that. There's nothing sadder, I think, than watching kids as the realization that they've lost has sunk in. But it's so, so dramatic at the same time. Some of the best pictures I've ever seen come from the losing side. A few years ago, the Saugus High hockey team was going for its third straight state title. But it lose, in overtime to Boston Latin. The best picture of the day was of a Saugus kid, sitting on the ice, with his back up against the boards, stunned and dazed, and probably exhausted too, at the sudden outcome. That is a picture that didn't need a single word.

I have another one of these to go to Saturday, when the St. Mary's softball team plays for a state championship. The Spartans and Murdock High will be doing a lot to match the excitement from last night.

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