March: With the smiles, tears for years

Tears for years.

On a gray, cold Saturday influenced by an irritating wind-swept snow blast the tears came. An annual reminder that for all that the beauty and adrenalin rush the basketball season and March Madness creates for us with its pools, buzzer beaters, hoop heroes, underdog stories and excellence there is the unavoidable flip side that does a tap dance on your heart.

Less than a half hour after Rhode Island College had defeated Eastern Connecticut State University for the Little East Conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament, Julie Keckler emerged into the lobby outside Geissler Gymnasium, her teammate Anna Barry following a few minutes later.

Both wore the weight of the day which carried far more than a 40-minute loss with it. Both struggled in the immediacy of the moment, no curtain big enough or near enough, no time in the locker room lengthy enough to hide the red –rimmed eyes. No antidote created to quell the huge hollow in the pit of the stomach. 

Both found solace – Keckler, head bowed, found her equally shaken mom Michelle for an embrace and more tears. Barry lost herself in the comfort of dad, Dan’s, shoulder for a long minute that didn’t seem long enough. Is it ever?

The scene was personal but one repeated every year at this time.  It was Keckler and Barry here but the experience is everywhere. The stinging, irreversible idea that it is over.  You know it is coming but the mind and heart are often in dispute. Expectation allows for preparation but when the time comes and you lose a love you have cultivated for so long the heart is not placated by the mind. It hurts.

This one had a bit of salt-in-the-wound flavor to it. Eastern had beaten RIC the second time around to earn a tie for the Little East regular season title. They had won the coin flip for the championship game, they had erased an 11-point lead and led by four with seven minutes left. Then the dream died.

With high schools and colleges it is happening all over this month. Only the precious few get the ending on top of the mountain. Some will go home with the pride of having gotten there. The majority will just go home, the realization of the experience not yet having caught up with jolt of the ending.

Keckler and Barry both have their own impressive stories.  Keckler, a fifth-year senior, went from an outstanding career at Trumbull High School, to an equally impressive career at Eastern earning All-Little East Conference two years and finishing 11th all-time on the Warriors scoring list with more than 1,000 points.

You want the ball in the hands of the Warriors point guard.  She is a thinker and there is that special comfort factor that if it doesn’t end up in the bottom of the net it will end up in the right hands.

Barry, a 6-foot All-State center from RHAM High School, has been All-World at Eastern, earning both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the conference three times. Yep, three times.  She is also the LEC Conference Volleyball Player of the Year. She is a foot-work savant, able to find a path to the hoop through an opening the size of a mailbox slot. She will walk into ECSU’s Hall of Fame or they will give her a chauffeur-driven ride.

The honors that go with the excellence speak of special stories which added to the upset of the day. But the moment’s essence and ensuing melancholy was about far more than the day and the expected end of the season.  This was the expected ending day of a lifetime journey. For Keckler and Barry this was it. No tomorrow, no next year. It was over. All of it. And in the mind’s eye you saw it and in the gut you felt it.

The high school games, the AAU games. Earliest times in little kid’s games. Locker room talk, teammates through the years, new uniforms and old uniforms.  Mom, dad and family in the stands, victory celebrations, defeat and despair, bus rides near and far.

Bad calls, clutch plays, hated teams, respected opponents, big shots, off nights, game-day jitters, titles, lifetime friends, buzzer-beaters, state tournaments, NCAA tournaments, wind sprints, practices, cheering crowds, friendly rims, warm gyms, winter nights.

A major slice of life that will last forever.

The loss was too fresh and maybe Keckler and Barry didn’t see and feel it all in the moment. But, it was there.  Mom and dad felt it. The present had become the past seemingly in a heartbeat. But it took decades to get to this point.

I watched with a sense of appreciation and loss. I have experienced the moment and watched it play out hundreds of time over the years. You know it is coming, getting used to it is another story. This one was a little more personal.

Julie Keckler has a pretty cool boyfriend, he lives at my house. She is easy going and a smiler while adding warmth to a room like a cozy winter fire. She was fighting hard in the moment. The moment won. It always does. You always want one more time, one game but the clock always runs out.

It hurts so bad because it has been so good. March brings us much to entertain and remember. But it also brings us endings. Familiar, predictable and never easy to get used to. Remember the ride, the special journey.

One moment yet tears for the years.

*Note – Keckler, Berry and Eastern Connecticut found out that endings can sometimes be tricky. One day later, the NCAA brought smiles back by somewhat unexpectedly selecting Eastern to compete in the Division III national tournament. The Warriors play Marietta in Ithaca New York tonight.

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