It was early Saturday afternoon in Southport, but the day already was getting late for the Pendleton Heights boys basketball team.
With time running out in the fourth quarter, the underdog Arabians trailed seventh-ranked Cathedral by double digits. A scrum ensued underneath the basket following a blocked shot, and Pendleton Heights seniors Brogan Gary and Kurt Talbert came away bleeding and were sent to the bench for treatment.
Moments later, with the game’s outcome in no doubt and just more than one minute remaining, both players eagerly returned to the court. The Arabians’ student section — which remained loud and proud throughout the contest — began chanting each of their names in tribute.
A few hours later, I was standing in line outside Frankfort’s Case Arena waiting for the doors to open for the Class A regional championship game.
It was cold, and everyone in the near vicinity was shivering. Until, that is, a caravan of a small school bus and two SUVs pulled into the lot behind us.
The vehicles marked the arrival of the Liberty Christian boys basketball team, and the crowd roared a warm welcome as the players took the long walk into a side entrance.
Later, after the Lions’ heartbreaking 77-68 loss to sixth-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic, many of those same fans gathered near a hallway outside the team’s locker room to cheer the players again.
Neither Liberty Christian or Pendleton Heights brought home the trophy it really wanted this weekend. But, even in defeat, both teams served as a reminder of what makes high school sports so unique.
That bond between the players and the fans is hard to replicate.
The Indianapolis Colts enjoyed a magical season this fall, and head coach Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia certainly brought the team and its fans closer together. Many outsiders commented about the unique relationship between the franchise and its surrounding community, and there’s no doubt it’s special in professional sports.
But how many of those fans ever will get to sit in a local restaurant and talk football with Pagano?
Indiana University fans have enjoyed a remarkable season that now seems destined to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. There’s no doubt there’s a special bond between that school and its fan base.
But how many of those fans have watched the players run in and out of their backyards and living rooms since they were in grade school?
High school basketball in Indiana has lost a lot of its prestige in the past 20 years or so. But high school sports in general have lost none of their charm.
The fans I watched cheering in Southport and Frankfort this weekend cared about winning and losing, sure. But they cared about the kids most of all.
It’s nice every now and again to turn away from the blinking lights of the scoreboard and remember what really matters.
Just another reason to fall in love with March.