Before the four-game slide on which it will enter the postseason tonight, Morris was winning at a higher rate than I’d ever seen it win in boys basketball.
It’s not only the winning that has set this season apart. Although I’ve seen the Redskins draw relatively well before, the atmosphere at almost every game I’ve covered in 2013-14 has been fantastic. Their student sections, and those of some visiting teams, have been large and loud. The nonstudent bleachers have been mostly full. Good to very good crowds have accompanied the Redskins to every away game I’ve attended.
Since Jan. 1, there’s really only been one game, at Oak Forest on Feb. 10, when the Redskins’ opponent wasn’t either from a neighboring town or a fellow Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference member – or both. With Morris in a heated battle for the NIB12 East championship – its 60-30 loss to Sycamore Friday relegated it to a three-way tie of the title – those games have had an air of excitement and drama that conference games in the past might have lacked.
I wondered if Morris coach Joe Blumberg was concerned that the nature of the Redskins’ recent games might make it harder for his players to adequately “get up” for the games to come. If a group of high schoolers is made to feel like every game is life or death, I reasoned, might their intensity and focus eventually begin to waver?
Last week, I emailed Blumberg to ask him about it. A bit of his lengthy response got worked into a story I wrote on the Redskins that ran Friday, but I thought the whole thing was worth sharing.
“I don’t think we will ever apologize for or treat all of the rivalry/big games as a negative thing. Years down the road, I hope our players will have fond memories of playing in great atmospheres during their high school careers,” Blumberg wrote.
“To be honest, as long as we continue to fight the perception of being a weak program or a struggling program, every game is a big game to us. We have to prove on a weekly basis that our success is not a fluke and that we can consistently win ballgames.
“And as long as athletes in this school choose to not play basketball, I think we have to work harder and harder to encourage every athlete to want to be a part of the basketball program. And that makes every game a big game. There’s always the next opportunity to prove you are capable or allow the critics to proclaim that you cannot get the job done.”
Blumberg then shared an anecdote involving a Michigan State basketball coach that I’m fairly sure has been the subject of such anecdotes before.
“A few years ago, as Tom Izzo was preparing his team for March Madness, he mentioned that he was worried about his team because they had played so many nationally televised games, had to battle through the rigorous Big Ten regular season schedule AND conference tournament, and he demanded his team be at their best mentally, emotionally and physically so many times that he was unsure they could continue to rise to the occasion,” Blumberg wrote.
“And if one of the great college coaches of our time is worried about mature college athletes keeping the competitive edge and remaining focused, it certainly is a huge concern for us dealing with teenagers.”
They’re teenagers now, but they won’t be forever, which Blumberg says is part of the motivation for wanting them to go through such potentially stressful situations.
“But as we’ve said before, high school athletics are about teaching life lessons. Yes, it’s tough to get mentally, physically and emotionally charged 30-plus times per year for competition,” he wrote. “but we demand it, expect it and try to coach our players’ minds.
“Ten or 15 years down the line, our players’ children deserve the best from their dads every day – whether sick, tired or after a bad day at work A boss is going to expect focus and results 300 days a year. Teaching mental discipline and toughness and consistent work ethic are a big part of high school sports.”
Ironically, the atmosphere the Redskins will see at their 3A Prairie Central Regional opener (about an hour’s drive from Morris) might be a step back from what they saw throughout the regular season.
“Our guys practice hard daily, and there aren’t any fans at any of our practices. Ideally, the environment shouldn’t have any affect on how hard we play. The guys in the locker room know what goes on inside the lines should be the only focus,” Blumberg wrote.
“We don’t expect the crowds at the regional to be as large as at Yorkville, at Sycamore or our home games. But the stakes are higher. And for that reason alone, we should be focused, enthusiastic, and play extremely hard. And if we don’t, our season will end. It’s really a simple matter.
“And I guess then we can analyze whether the rivalry games, tense environments and months of stress were helpful or harmful. If losses are handled the right way, treated as opportunities to learn and grow, then I think the experience from playing in so many close games and big games should pay off. If we are still worried about a loss two weeks ago, we probably deserve to lose.”