GREELEY – I hate to say it, but life doesn’t get any easier after losing in the state tournament.
The good news is that the basketball boys at Evangelical Christian Academy, a 70-student school in Colorado Springs, will be well prepared for the bumps and twists and wires no one is going to avoid in a full life.
They’ve had some disappointments over the past three seasons. Nothing life or death – well, nothing they told me about – but real setbacks for a group of teenagers. The Eagles were disappointed after a 38-37 loss to a serious Merino side in the Class 1A quarter-final here at the Bank of Colorado Arena.
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They will go ahead. They will remember with smiles the 11 seniors who played their last sanctioned hoops match, not with the tears they shed on Thursday. And they’ll be better men the last three seasons because, like I said, there were setbacks along the way.
Take March 2020. No, really, take it. It was midnight the day before the state tournament when Bob Wingett, their coach, woke them up to let them know that only their parents could attend the quarterfinal game. Maybe 24 hours later, the tournament was canceled for good thanks to the state’s COVID-19 response. Or take March 2021 when athletic director Don Steiner said the Eagles had to forfeit their Sweet-16 game in the state tournament due to COVID protocols.
“(It’s) hard for kids, you know?” said Wingette. “But they have phenomenal families.”
Or take the inspiring case of ECA senior Noah Coddington. He was on the bench Thursday, rooting and cheering and lifting his guys, as the Eagles rallied from a 10-0 deficit to make it a one-game whale. A few years ago, Noah had a mountain biking accident and broke his neck, his trainer said. Doctors determined basketball was a bad idea, although he could still play baseball. And if Noah keeps the spirit he showed on the bench, he’s going to make the world a better place.
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Wednesday night – the day before the big game – Noah spoke to the team. Goosebumps, I tell you, when he remembered from practice he revealed to his guys that he couldn’t play basketball anymore due to a freak mountain biking injury. And his guys hugged him and said they love him and that’s why he clapped his heart out even though he couldn’t play. You may say this stuff is cheesy, but it’s not. We need more Noahs.
Right, the game.
What a game.
It was 10-0, Merino, just 3 minutes away. Merino has this guard named Tyler Miller, who is 5-foot-11, according to a Merino fan. Ehhh, I don’t know. If Tyler is 5-foot-11, I’m Jamal Murray. But Tyler Miller shoots like Jamal Murray, and Miller swept a pair of three-pointers before ECA could call a timeout to break his momentum. If they hadn’t, Tyler Miller could still do like Jamal Murray and do threes.
But the Eagles came back with a bang, like they do. Michael Mann had 10 points, RJ Wagner had nine points, Jared Guest had seven points, Vito Yacovoni had five points. Eagles run “Elbow!” and “4-Down!” and all the things you expect from the Eagles, and they ran their thing and guarded well enough to win 21 games and only lose three. No dunkers on the team, no future Division I athletes, and the Eagles were likely one outside shooter without a berth in the state semifinals on Friday.
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But damn it, they play hard. Same for merino. Shoot, my own knees were in jeopardy more than once on Thursday, with every reckless body flying out of bounds for loose balls. It’s a level of ball where rivals like Evangelical Christian and Simla stay for the next game to put down roots on…their rivals? Yes, it happened this season. Different world, class 1A balloon, and I’ll take it. Beats Michigan and Wisconsin struggle to cross a handshake line without exploding in a fight.
Class 1A ball for the win.
Trailing 32-28 late in the fourth quarter, Wagner hit a 3 from the corner. One point game. Mann followed with a hard bucket in the lane. ECA had the lead, 33-32. Merino wouldn’t go away and took a 38-37 lead with less than a minute to go. But Merino missed a free throw.
ECA had possession with 6.4 seconds left and turned it around. Ball game. Damn, another one.
“Last night we ended practice with ‘What are your favorite memories?’ Wingett said afterwards.
A loss to the state won’t be on the short list, but they’ll be better men for it.