About once a year, a high school sporting event makes national news for the lopsided nature of the final score, whether it's a blowout in football or an embarrassing rout on the basketball court. Pundits pontificate and outsiders mock the losing team, when they're not castigating the winning side. I'm also a junkie for these types of games, though I have little interest in assigning blame or shame.
Early in the prep basketball season, a game between two small schools in northern Minnesota broke through the noise to earn some recognition. Last week Moose Lake-Willow River defeated Wrenshall 65-0 in girls basketball. It's the type of score a local sportscaster will introduce with a chuckle and the line, "Folks, this is not a typo."
Countless teams have lost by more than 65 points, but when a shutout's involved, the result's going to bounce from the weekly paper, to public radio, to national blogs and newspapers. It was 40-0 at half. Moose Lake-Willow River played reserves the second half, and Wrenshall had, according to the coach of the winning team, about 11 layups that failed to go in, which would have sliced the deficit to a more manageable 63 points.
One message board I saw devolved into a debate about whether the two teams should even be playing against each other. The person was unaware of the geography of Minnesota and the fact the two teams are of similar size. They play in the same conference. This wasn't a big school from the Twin Cities beating up on a small school in rural Minnesota. A few years ago Wrenshall made the state tournament. If they have some decent younger players in the program, they could be beating Moose Lake-Willow River by 30 in a few years. These types of ups and downs are common in all programs, but especially in small towns, which rely on the luck of the gene pool and the reproduction rate of the townsfolk. Some years a team will be blessed with four or five outstanding players, other times the talent pool is bare for three or four grades. It's accepted that the winning and losing is usually cyclical, though there are also traditionally strong programs that churn out winners every season.
But for everyone else, the bad comes with the good, or, more accurately, after the good.
Unlike similar results in the recent past, there haven't been any premature calls for the head of the winning coach. No one's been accused of bad sportsmanship. If the opponent's missing layups, what's the responsibility of the winning team, especially if the reserves are in the game? Aside from scoring in the wrong basket to get a 2 on the other side of the scoreboard. The reserves have the right to play as hard as possible. If they too are much better than the losing team, routs happen. And, occasionally, but thankfully not often, historic shutouts happen.
Once the sportsmanship questions are dealt with, people then turn to how it affects the players, specifically the losing players. What kind of damage will it do? Will they be on their therapist's couch in 25 years, blaming Moose Lake-Willow River for their three failed marriages, when they're not blaming their overbearing mother and distant father? Will the kids drop out and start drinking and drugging, trying to wash away the shame of being shut out in a basketball game?
What about the children? It's the type of cry we hear often, whether it's involving athletics or Janet Jackson's exposed breasts.
The players will be fine. Whatever embarrassment the kids or coaches or townspeople might feel now - and it is just a basketball game, so they really shouldn't feel bad at all - will dissipate as the season goes on, even as they'll likely continue to rack up eye-opening defeats (they've lost 78-8 and 102-20, as well). In six months it will be a footnote to their school year. In 10 years it will be an anecdote at a class reunion.
Ever since I've been a reporter, I've usually been more interested in the losing team and players. When Trinity Bible lost 105-0 on the football field six years ago, I wondered what the players felt and how they kept moving forward.
The players and coaches were embarrassed, hurt, but hardly permanently damaged. Certainly most of the people involved with that game remember it to this day. But that might have less to do with the score and more to do with the fact someone wrote a book about it with the subhead calling them the worst college football team in the nation.
Many of the players and coaches involved with that game were still at Trinity a year later when I covered the team for my book. That year, in the Lions's first home game of the season, they lost 12-7 in heartbreaking fashion. On the final play of the game, with Trinity a yard away from a victory against Principia, the Lions's running back plunged into the end zone for the winning touchdown. At least that's what it looked like live, and on the videotape. The officials, however, saw things differently. After a few seconds of discussion, they ruled the back down just inches from the goal line. That play - and that game - hurt 105 times more than the 105-0 defeat. That game hurt more because one play meant the difference between a win and a loss. The deciding play in the 105-0 game was the opening kickoff.
The 105-0 game was the reason I was at Trinity a year later. The game put Trinity on the map, even if as just a dot. It helped convince a publisher to back a book about the program. The players remember being beat up that day on the field, they remember the injuries that decimated the team, and they remember the long bus ride home.
But it didn't do any lasting harm, at least not emotionally. The details from the 105-0 game have probably been mostly forgotten. But I bet most of the players remember nearly every play from the final minute of that 12-7 loss.
The losses that hurt, the ones that linger and sometimes even damage, aren't the 50-point defeats, but the final-second losses. If you're a former player, think about the games you remember most from your playing days. If you're a fan, think about the games that stick out most, no matter the level, whether professional or high school. I can still remember the details of the close losses suffered on the high school basketball court and in college. I still wonder how the outcomes would have been different if one shot would have gone in, or we would have grabbed one more rebound. Those are the games we remember, not the ones that were over by halftime.
The Wrenshall girls will be fine. Unless they lose one at the buzzer.
Routs can be quickly forgotten. And if anything, they just make players stronger. It's the heartbreaking losses that torment them.