A Tale of Two Teams, Two Coaches, and One Missed Opportunity

Coach Jeff Traylor with Marshall working with Marshall players

Marshall softball players Antanai Coleman, left, and Taylor Stigger try on catching gear with the help of Roncalli junior varsity coach Jeff Traylor in the spring of 2010. (Photo: IndyStar.com)

By now, you’ve likely heard of the girls’ basketball game played Tuesday night between Bloomington South and Arlington here in Indianapolis. By the final buzzer, the score was 107-2 in favor of Bloomington South and, in my opinion, a great opportunity was lost.

First, I should point out that I love winning. I think it’s great, as well as one of primarily objectives of playing a sport. But it’s not the only objective, and probably not the most important. There’s sportsmanship. Being part of a team. Learning to work together and depend on each other. Building confidence and acumen. All of these are more important than winning. I think all of these faded into oblivion on Tuesday when one coach’s desire to win trumped everything else.

So on Tuesday night, when it became glaringly apparent that the game was going to be a rout, what should the coaches have done? Specifically, what should Larry Winters, the Bloomington South coach have done? In his own defense, Winters has said that he wasn’t trying to run up the score. Winters told Nat Newell of The Indianapolis Star, “I didn’t tell my girls to stop shooting because that would have been more embarrassing [to Arlington]. We were not trying to embarrass them.” Well, you missed the mark on that one, Coach.

When I heard this story, I was immediately reminded of what happened back in  2010 when the Marshall softball team showed up to play Roncalli High School in a junior varsity game. Rick Reilly, in reporting for ESPN, described the scene:

After an inning and a half, Roncalli was womanhandling inner-city Marshall Community. Marshall pitchers had already walked nine Roncalli batters. The game could’ve been 50-0 with no problem.

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

It’s no wonder. This was the first softball game in Marshall history. A middle school trying to move up to include grades 6 through 12, Marshall showed up to the game with five balls, two bats, no helmets, no sliding pads, no cleats, 16 players who’d never played before, and a coach who’d never even seen a game.

One Marshall player asked, “Which one is first base?” Another: “How do I hold this bat?” They didn’t know where to stand in the batter’s box. Their coaches had to be shown where the first- and third-base coaching boxes were.

At this point, Roncalli coach Jeff Traylor (a great guy from a great family), offered to forfeit. Reilly continues:

Yes, a team that hadn’t lost a game in 2½ years, a team that was going to win in a landslide purposely offered to declare defeat. Why? Because Roncalli wanted to spend the two hours teaching the Marshall girls how to get better, not how to get humiliated.

“The Marshall players did NOT want to quit,” wrote Roncalli JV coach Jeff Traylor, in recalling the incident. “They were willing to lose 100 to 0 if it meant they finished their first game.” But the Marshall players finally decided if Roncalli was willing to forfeit for them, they should do it for themselves. They decided that maybe — this one time — losing was actually winning.

This is certainly unusual and it’s a great outcome. But it’s not the end of the story:

That’s about when the weirdest scene broke out all over the field: Roncalli kids teaching Marshall kids the right batting stance, throwing them soft-toss in the outfield, teaching them how to play catch. They showed them how to put on catching gear, how to pitch, and how to run the bases. Even the umps stuck around to watch.

“One at a time the Marshall girls would come in to hit off of the [Roncalli] pitchers,” Traylor recalled. “As they hit the ball their faces LIT UP! They were high fiving and hugging the girls from Roncalli, thanking them for teaching to them the game.”

In the midst of all of the talk about sportsmanship being dead, take a moment to go to ESPN and read the whole article. I promise you’ll feel better.

Still, this leaves us in a bit of a quandary with Arlington. By losing to Bloomington South by 105 points, what lessons were learned? Sportsmanship? Team work? Compassion? Predictably, the pundits are weighing in none-too-kindly on Coach Winters, and you can add my name to their ranks. He certainly misjudged the situation and missed an opportunity, but I don’t think it’s enough for us to just point our fingers, place some blame and move on.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should work to change the game, either. A “mercy rule” doesn’t exist in basketball and probably shouldn’t. We’ve all seen teams come back from huge deficits to win.

But here’s a thought… In a town where we have these two polar opposite examples of how to behave for the good of the sport and the kids involved, I’m wondering if we can’t use this as an opportunity to raise these Arlington kids up. In a town where our Indiana Fever just won the WNBA Championship, I’m wondering if there might be an opportunity for those players to adopt this Arlington team. Can some personal attention, some coaching, some hard-won wisdom by some of the game’s greats (Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Jessica Davenport…) end a 22-game losing streak? Maybe. Maybe not.

But winning isn’t everything, and a little personal attention and mentoring is just what this team needs right now.

One Comment

  1. You are absolutely right Jim.

    I’ve spent a number of years coaching and in the last 10 years I’ve been a softball umpire and basketball official and been a part of hundreds of games. I’ve never seen a game that lopsided and am extremely disappointed in the Bloomington South coach. I have to admit there have been times when I’ve been officiating and a team is up 30 or more and still pressing and I simply refuse to blow the whistle or during a softball game I call a player out when she didn’t leave early in an attempt to encourage a coach to accept the opportunity to teach important lesson to his players.

    I made my departure from coaching to umpire and officiate when I had enough of the parents who most likely haven’t learned that lesson in sportsmanship that you are I so obviously cherish.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share in your passion for doing things right!
    Rob Warner

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