Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with Woodward Classics for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman.
The Notus High School varsity basketball team, seven strong, filed from the darkness of its locker room to the bright lights of the basketball court at Marsing High School. A group of small boys stopped to watch as they passed by.
“You guys are gonna’ lose,” one of the boys said.
“So what?” one of the players replied.
The little boys didn’t know what to say. Almost anything else would have been expected. “So what” left them speechless.
The mood in the Notus locker room had not been ebullient. Five of the team’s 12 players, including its starting center, were home with the flu; another starter was coming down with it. Even healthy, a team with Notus’s record wasn’t apt to exhibit soaring spirits. The Pirates had played 18 games and lost all but three of them.
Notus High School has 90 students, including freshmen. The football team had so few players that it couldn’t afford the luxury of separate offensive and defensive lines. At practices, the right half of the line scrimmaged against the left. The dozen boys on the varsity basketball team comprise almost half of the male enrollment of the junior and senior classes.
Steve McClain, the team’s 29-year old coach, confided that it can be “tough to get good athletes at a small school like this. Some of the best decided to go to school someplace else. We had one kid who was six foot four and 240 pounds move here from California. He was the kind of kid coaches dream about, but he decided to play for Caldwell. Caldwell is only five miles away, and it plays against the bigger schools.
“We knew we wouldn’t win many games, but we aren’t worrying about our season record. One of my goals is to teach them never to give up. And these kids don’t.”
At a time when coaches make headlines by throwing temper tantrums, McClain’s style is that of a country gentleman. He doesn’t mistake winning for success in life. There is no shouting in the Notus locker room, where it’s so quiet you can hear the distant rumble of the school’s heating plant. The locker room is small, dimly lit and smells of mold.
The game begins before a crowd of 40 Notus fans versus 110 for the home team. Notus’s cheerleaders shout that the Pirates are ready and are going to feast on Husky stew. Not ready enough apparently, they finish the first half down by six.
At halftime in the Marsing locker room, brightly painted and far more cheerful than that of the visitors, the coach chastises his players for frittering away a 12-point lead. A few walls away, McClain compliments his team on its play and advises his players on a comeback strategy. As they walked back to the gym for the second half, I asked the soft-spoken coach, who also teaches history and government, about his career goals.
“I suppose I’d like to be a teacher in the Boise area,” he said. “One thing that ticks me off is the image of a coach who just happens to teach. I consider myself a teacher first. There are fantasies, of course. It would be nice to be a coach at a big school and help a lot of kids, but I really haven’t thought that far ahead. I guess I just want to he happy.”
Notus comes within three points during the third quarter, but the fourth belongs to Marsing. With Notus down by 14, a surprising thing happens. McClain sends in the only boy of the seven who is yet to play.
“He does’t have the experience of some of the other boys, but he works hard and listens well and hasn’t missed a single practice. I just don’t like to see him have to spend the the whole night on the bench.”
The final score: 57-44. Marsing’s record improves to 7-12, Notus’s slips to 3-16.
Back in the locker room, the Notus players compare notes on decongestants. One sits with his head between his knees, coughing. It’s almost the only sound.
McClain breaks the hush by complimenting his team:
“You did a good job. You were victims of circumstances tonight. … Always remember. You aren’t a loser until you quit.”