One of the most significant benefits of high school sports is that they can be a wonderful antidote for cynicism.
In a sports world seemingly filled with millionaires and misanthropes and NBA teams utterly giving up on each other and their coach — I’m looking at you, Trail Blazers — high school sports often remain a bastion of pure joy.
Witness last week, when Skyview won the Class 4A state title in girls basketball, followed hours later by Prairie capturing the 3A crown.
For Skyview, the title was a bolt of lightning. It was the first for the program, it came in coach Jennifer Buscher’s second season, and it arrived courtesy of a last-second 3-pointer by Aubrey Ward-El — who had been 0 for 10 in the game to that point.
Skyview’s championship was a perfect blend of goosebump-inducing storylines. But a more significant litmus test for one’s level of cynicism was provided by Prairie’s title.
Coach Al Aldridge, after all, was seeking his sixth state championship, had a team in the final for the 12th time, and has won more than 700 games in 31 years at the school.
If ever a program could treat a championship run as a birthright, it is Prairie High School girls basketball. Rooting for Prairie could seem a bit like rooting for Microsoft.
Yet, while the Falcons are the 800-pound gorilla of girls basketball in this state, it is important to note that none of the players on this year’s team had cut down the nets at the end of the season. It is important to note that nobody in a Prairie uniform had done so since 2003, when this year’s players were 8 or 9 years old.
For example, Heather Corral became the first member of her family to win a state title for Prairie. Hard to believe, considering that Ashley and now Heather have been dominant figures in their sport for eight consecutive years, but it’s true.
“This is probably the one thing I’ll ever have on Ashley in basketball,” Heather said, holding her championship medal. “Growing up I looked up to her. She helped more than she’ll know; she showed me how to play basketball.”
Journalists tend to be jaded, having been trained to look into the depths of even the most saccharin-laced story. But there are some things that even the surliest of curmudgeons could not be cynical about.
So, when Aldridge climbed the ladder to snip the final strand on the net and wave the spoils of victory over his head, it served as a reminder that winning never gets old.
“I told them, ‘Don’t take this for granted, just because we make it here a lot,’ ” he said. “Enjoy it. It’s a lot of work. A LOT of work.
“Just to see the look on the kids’ faces, the jubilation, it makes it worth it. It’s really special to see them so happy.”
Aldridge is the first to admit that he’s not the easiest coach to play for.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I demand it from them,” he said. “It’s not always a bed of roses, but it’s not as bad as some people think it is.”
And how do outsiders view the coach?
“A cranky old man,” he said.
And with that, Al Aldridge laughed, a man enjoying the view, regardless of how many times he had been there before.