Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tonto's Horse

The benefit of running the table during our admittedly short regular season, aside from the Northern League Championship, is that we get a first round bye in the playoffs. While it's nice knowing that we get an automatic trip to the semi-finals, it's even nicer being able to scout the competition.

You might be wondering -- isn't this middle school basketball? Well, yes, but all that really means is that there are no shoe contracts for the players or three-piece suits for the coaches. We're still doing our best to win, so if I can get an edge by watching the two teams we might face on Monday night, please be sure that I will. Every single time.

And that's how it was that I found myself in a middle school gym with my three children last Wednesday night, stuck in a crowd of camera-toting parents, supportive teachers, and distracted eighth graders.

The game was between Hoover, a team we had beaten 62-51 in Week 2, and Stanford, the second place team in the Southern League. With nothing to go on but the scores and standings that were e-mailed each week, I knew absolutely nothing about the teams in the other league, but recently I had begun to suspect our league was much stronger. I'm not sure what this suspicion was based upon, but by the end of the night it would prove to be correct.

It's not the easiest thing in the world to gather up a five-year-old, a four-year-old, and an eight-month-old and convince them to go to a basketball game (there was bribery involved), so the first quarter was half over by the time we arrived. The game was decided fairly quickly thereafter; Hoover was much, much better, and they ended up winning by about twenty points or so. I was secretly (and immaturely) rooting for Stanford, just because I wanted to gain some measure of revenge for our semi-final loss last year by beating them this year. But as Leslie reminded me later, the fact that they're done playing and we're not means that we have beaten them.

So how exactly do you scout a middle school basketball team? Basically you're looking for two things: quirky defense and star players. Hoover runs a 2-3 zone, same as we do, and likes to run their offense through the high post, so at least there will be no surprizes. But just because they're not spectacular, it doesn't mean they aren't any good. Although we beat them by eleven when we met, they actually held a lead midway through the fourth quarter. Hopefully my boys will remember that...

There was one thing that troubled me about the first round. Hughes, the second place team in our league, beat Rogers, the third place Southern League team. That was expected, but the final score was not. 83-19. I know the Hughes coach very well, and have always had a great deal of respect for him, but it's diminished slowly over the course of this season. When he called me the night before our teams played a few weeks ago to question me about a player he thought might be ineligible (Raynard), I let it slide. When we dominated his team, beating them 68-57, and he called the commissioner to ask if our league had an age limit, clearly a reference to 15-year-old Jesse, I started to wonder. Beating a team by sixty-four points is strike three. There can never be an excuse for that.

And so now, like or not, the playoffs are upon us. At this time tomorrow I'll either be reliving a nightmare or getting ready to coach in a game I've only experienced from the outside looking in. One thing's for sure, though. I don't think I'll be a very good teacher tomorrow.