If your team is any good at all, you’ll lose your last game.
That’s the reality of sports. If you get into a post-season tournament, odds are high you will not be the one team that wins it. You’ll be one of the many that do not.
That’s especially true in high school soccer. I am head coach the Staples boys team. For 14 of my 15 years in that post, our last game was a loss.
One of those seasons ended last week in Ridgefield. It was a night game, and cold. Our Wrecker team played 45 minutes from home because we were seeded lower than the Tigers. Two days earlier -- after our first-round overtime win, a gutsy 1-0 performance in Stamford -- we were on top of the world.
Now -- despite being underdogs on paper -- the team was optimistic.
We’d tied Ridgefield 0-0 earlier in the year -- without two of our starters. Now they were back. Our coaching staff devised a game plan. Our players believed in it, and in themselves. They followed the strategy almost perfectly.
As the clock ticked down -- through regulation time, and again into overtime -- it looked like another 0-0 match. Penalty kicks -- that cruel decider of soccer fate -- loomed.
Suddenly, the home team struck. A shot hit the goalpost, and caromed back on the field. A Ridgefield player was there. It was the right place, at the right time, for him -- and the wrong place for us.
Twelve minutes of overtime remained, after that goal. Our guys battled to the very end. But Ridgefield did too. They protected their lead like -- well, Tigers.
Suddenly, Staples’ season was over. Ridgefield celebrated wildly. The Wreckers slumped on the field, wherever they were when the final horn sounded.
There were tears. There often are. They are tears of frustration, for not reaching a goal the players worked so hard for. They are tears of regret, for missing a shot or a tackle, or running 99 percent one time instead of 100.
Mostly though, they are tears of sorrow. In one instant, players realize that their season is not the only thing that has ended. Their team has too.
Sports teams are a remarkable thing. They’re made up of individuals, yet they function as one. It takes a disparate group of players to make a team -- coaches need athletes with different skill sets, different personalities, different sizes and ages -- yet the ultimate goal is to have them all buy into one philosophy, work as one cohesive unit, spend so much time together they seem to form just one organism.
When that happens, it’s magical. I’m fortunate that on the teams I coach, it happens more often than not. But I’m also under no illusion that it’s something I really can create or control. When it happens, it’s because the 20 or so teenagers on a team have made it so.
They don’t have a well-crafted plan. They’re teenagers, after all; they decide where to hang out that night an hour before. But somehow, over the course of a season -- in the random moments during warm-ups, or car rides to and from practice; on shared texts and stories in players-only group chats and Snapchats; through the adolescent rituals that adults are just dimly aware of -- intense bonds form.
Of course, as coaches we do play some role. We create environments and cultures that can be welcoming and inclusive, or so uncomfortable and exclusive that team members play for themselves, and no one else. Our training sessions can bring players together, in shared misery or joy (sometimes both). And we can organize “team-building” events. But ultimately, the bonds that develop -- and how tightly they are wound -- is determined, unknowingly, by the athletes together.
Our Staples High School boys soccer team is not the only one that feels this way. I saw similar tightness on some of our opponents, and on Staples teams in other sports. But boys soccer is what I know best, and what I was privileged to be a part of this year from late August on.
Yet as strong as a team is, it’s also fragile. The one solid unit made up of 24 unique teenagers is ephemeral. One game; one overtime goal; one final buzzer -- poof, it’s gone.
The bus ride home from Ridgefield was tough. It was the final ride home for this particular group. There would be no more.
But by the time we got to Westport, players were smiling. The seniors were thinking about the amazing fun they’d had. Meanwhile, the juniors and sophomores were already making plans for next year.