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Hawk Talk: We won.
This is the goofiest team I have ever coached in my entire life.
“Did you hold the trophy yet?”
“Here! Do you want to bite it?”
“Why…would I want to bite it?”
“It’s just something we do!”
So. We did it. We won the New Hampshire Division Three State Championship. The game itself was a bit of a blur. It was mostly our defense versus their offense. But, we knew that going in. We knew that we had to possess the ball more, set up our shots, and dodge when we had openings. I just wish we had actually done that earlier than the fourth quarter.
You know. Because of the stress.
That thing on my wrist in the picture is a Whoop and it measures my heart rate. I was at a consistent 146 beats per minute. Which is actually lower than what it was in the semi-finals where I hit 176 bpm. Did I almost die?
We’ll get to that later.
But first, let’s go back a few weeks.
We’re playing away against Pelham in the regular season. They’re a big and physical team that you have to beat with speed and cunning. In the second quarter, one of our starting attackmen goes down. His name is Merrick. He’s slight, but that’s just because he’s a skier and a mountain biker. He grew up playing club lacrosse but quit before high school. I asked him why he stopped playing club and he said, with his gravelly long-haul trucker voice, “Coach, I love doing so many different things, and I want my life to be fun.”
He’s a tough kid. He can barely walk off the field. I see him wincing on the bench and the sounds of the game drown out. I say to the head coach, “I need to check on him. Give me a few minutes.” He nods.
I go over and Merrick is fighting back tears. I ask him where it hurts. He can’t even lift up his jersey to show me. I yell for a trainer. Then I run to the scorer's table and do it again. I just want to be sure he didn’t rupture his spleen or something.
The trainer comes over. She is taking a look, and I’m just standing there. She says it’s probably his ribs. I crouch down next to him and he’s still battling the pain. I tell him to look at me and start breathing through his nose and out of his mouth. Steady. Calm.
“You’re going to be okay.”
I see his mom walk over from behind. I tell her that I didn’t really see the contact and that maybe he should go to the hospital to get checked out. Again, he says that he’s okay.
We go on to win the game in Overtime, 4-3. Rockfights, you know?
It was a badly bruised rib. He misses a game but comes back to play against Plymouth in our quarterfinal game. He goes down again. Same issue.
His older brother, Will, is also on the team. He is our utility guy. We move him around and ask him to play defense, offense, whatever. Third middie, SSDM, on the wing - same response, best response, “Yes, coach.”
We asked Will to play X against Bow in the semi-final in place of his younger brother. Just move the ball, back up shots, and manage the tempo. He crushes it. We win against Bow - who was undefeated all season - in overtime. It was one of the best games I have ever coached or seen in my life.
But this is not about that game.
Merrick heals up enough to play in the final against Campbell. They press out on him early, but he throws a quick dodge and the defender hits the air chasing his stick. He dances back to X and whips a pass to the wing. The rest of the game he just keeps his composure. Moves the ball through X, makes passes from the wing easier, and looks for his opening. Never forcing a thing.
Then, in the fourth quarter, his chance comes. His defender hedges a little too close to the outside of the crease. He drives, looks up, and buries the ball on the goalie. It’s our final goal of the game. It ices the win - the championship.
Everything that happened after that was a blur. I think we were offside for the entire last minute of the game.
I remember putting my hands on my head and hearing the buzzer sound.
Frenzied movement. Joy. Hugs. Tears.
An hour later, we’re riding back on the bus. Everyone is still celebrating. Dancing. Singing. “Cotton Eye Joe” is blaring in the background. (Which is somehow way better than the team anthem of “Don’t Touch my Truck”.)
Merrick is curled into a fetal position in one of the front seats. Airpods in, eyes closed. I ask one of our volunteer coaches (Eli, a freshman goalie at Keene State who came back to help us when his season was over) what was up with Merrick.
“He’s in a lot of pain. I asked him earlier.”
I look down at Merrick. We have so many names for him. Mer-Bear. Swear. Butter. Butter-Mer. Swear-Bear. It’s a lot of bears.
He sort of half opens an eye and smiles a little.
I smile back, but wider than I’ve ever smiled in my life, “Hey, man. We did it.”
He shuts his eyes and pulls his legs into his body.
“That’s what a great teammate does,” I mutter to no one in particular.
At one point we were 5-5. We entered the playoffs as the fifth seed on tiebreakers. We were doing karate dance moves to a remix of the Mortal Kombat theme in the locker room before the champ game. Yes. We.
People keep asking me how we made this final run. And the answer is simple:
I have a story like this for every player on this team.
If you read the previous Hawk Talks this season, you no doubt felt my unease and frustration in them. I just wanted them to understand why we were doing what we were doing. I wanted them to see that we could be so much better than we were - especially on offense. But what I didn’t see - what I couldn’t see - was how much they were willing to give up for each other to win.
I told them a thousand times what I wanted them to do. Trained it endlessly. Move as a unit, take care of the ball, and be patient. In the final games, I talked a lot about brotherhood and appreciation in our huddles. How much joy they brought to the coaching staff every day. But telling isn’t showing.
They showed me what brotherhood really is.
It is sacrifice.
It is pain.
It is love.
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