It is tough to go out a winner.
For most of us, the pinnacle of our athletic careers – and the sunset of those careers – is high school varsity sports. Some will peak at the youth or lower levels, others may continue into college, but for most of us, varsity preps was it.
And there are two ways to go out a winner: as an also-ran, playing for pride, or to win it all – be the champion. Sadly, my football career ended as one of those also-rans. Granted, we beat our nemesis Enterprise, but they got to continue into the playoffs and we did not.
My coaching career was not much better. I only got to coach in one playoff game, and that was at the youth level against a team from Oakland. Talk about not going out a winner – we got boat raced. Mollywopped. Shellacked. Embarrassed.
I was the offensive coordinator and the best plays we had all day were the fake punt and when they would jump offsides.
Around these parts, the mountain top for soccer, softball and baseball is a Sac-Joaquin Section championship. Yes, Cal-Hi sports will name who it thinks is worthy of being a state champion, but the final step in the arena of competition is a section title. The Blue Banner.
That may change for soccer with the moving of it to the winter, but for now, the only way to win your last game in one of those three sports is to claim a section title or finish out of the running.
You can win your league championship, go deep into the playoffs but come up short and finish with a terrible taste in your mouth. But that is what competition is. More teams lose than win. March Madness just begun with 60-plus teams and there is no double elimination. Lose and go home – period. Yeah, making it to the Final Four is an accomplishment, but there is no third-place game. It is win or nothing.
Recently, California began a state-wide football playoff system that has been a work in progress since its inception. In was limited in its original form to teams voted on by the Section commissioners, and whenever there is a vote to determine participation, there is going to be grumbling.
And there was a lot of grumbling. So for the last season the format had morphed into every Section champion earning a berth in the state playoffs. And low and behold, a team from our fair city came out the other end with a state championship – Sierra.
The Manteca Bulletin went blue for the day and coverage included the front page. There was some grumbling from other schools about how the paper was now the “Sierra” Bulletin, and to the grumblers I simply said, “Win a state championship and you will get the same amount of love.”
Little did I know that chit would be claimed in just a little over three months – and by a two-time bridesmaid, no less.
In case this is the first copy of the Bulletin you have read, let me bring you up to speed. Manteca High entered Valley Oak League competition with the tallest team in the league, but in this case, size did not matter. Weston Ranch beat the Buffaloes twice to claim the VOL title and the two teams met again for the SJS Division III championship. The Cougars claimed that title too, and they did so in convincing fashion at Sleep Train Arena.
Both teams entered the Nor-Cal playoffs with the goal of a return trip to Sleep Train. Some would say that was a goal, but if history was any indication, it was more of a pipe dream. In this case, that dream did come true.
Weston Ranch got knocked off along the way, but the Buffaloes sliced and diced their way through the best the Bay Area had to offer for another trip to basketball Mecca. This time, Manteca led from pillar to post and walked out of the home of the Sacramento Kings with heads held high and tears of joy.
I keep a lot of what some would consider junk, but to me, everything has a meaning. One of those tidbits I have is an oversized Sports Illustrated calendar from 1993. It featured some of the best moments in sports from the prior 50 years to include Dwight Clark and “The Catch,” Vince Lombardi being carried off the field by Jerry Kramer, Willie Mays and his classic over-the-shoulder catch, the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, and other classic, classic moments.
But the one that stands out to me the most is a picture from 1970 with hockey great Bobby Orr after his overtime goal to give the Boston Bruins their first Stanley Cup since 1940. Orr is fully extended parallel to and above the ice with his quote captioned below, “Well, no practice tomorrow. No one left to beat.”
Very few teams get the opportunity to say that. Welcome to the club, Manteca High.