Time Out: July 31, 2013

I was reminded last week of the powerful connection that often takes hold between high school players and coaches, a bond that sometimes endures for decades. Forged around common dreams, achievable, shared goals, and the day-to-day struggles meant to attain them, coaches and players form relationships unique to schooling.

Last week, I escaped to the outdoors of Steuben County for some much needed R&R. Towards the end of my stay, my wife, Jo, phoned to inform me that Grace Mastin, a retired third-grade teacher and former colleague when long ago I was just beginning my teaching career, had passed. With calling hours scheduled a 90-minute ride away, Jo wondered if I might want to attend.
Grace Mastin was more than a teaching colleague. She and her husband, Mike served as surrogate parents to a 22-year-old kid beginning a new career, alone and nervous, far away from home. And, Grace and Mike were the parents of four daughters, three (Laurie, Penny, and Lisa) who played on my girls’ basketball team, the first high school varsity team I ever coached.

Only one left
The decision that I would guide that team was not my own. No one was interested in coaching girls’ basketball. Harlow Fischer, superintendent of Honeoye Central School at the time, had tried his powers of persuasion, played old chips, and come up empty. I was summoned to his office.
Oblivious to Mr. Fischer’s coaching dilemma and overwhelmed with the responsibilities that come with a first teaching assignment, I was petrified, convinced I must have done something wrong. I tenuously entered the office to confront a smiling Fischer walking from behind his desk in my direction with an outstretched hand. The superintendent vigorously shook my hand and offered hearty congratulations.

After thanking Fischer, I found the courage to inquire about the reason for his celebratory mood. “You’ve just been named the new Honeoye Varsity Girls Basketball Coach,” Fischer responded, patting my back assuredly. There was one week’s time before the first practice.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. My beginning teaching assignment was an especially challenging one, a combined third- and fourth-grade classroom, more a budgetary arrangement than a proven organizational scheme to improve student performance. Eighteen girls tried out for the basketball team. With no junior varsity team, I thought it foolhardy to make cuts, so I kept everyone on the team, complicating my coaching challenge. Thankfully I didn’t understand the magnitude of tasks before me, and forged forward with all things involving school.

That basketball season was a magical time. Girls’ basketball in Honeoye was in its infancy. The ladies were eager learners. I was able to schedule Saturday scrimmages with junior varsity teams throughout the area to give the girls who got little game time some valuable court experience. Everyone was simply happy for the opportunity to be on the team and learn something about the game.

Getting to know them
Two of the three Mastin girls, Laurie, a senior, and Penny, a sophomore, were starters on my first varsity team. Lisa, a freshman, saw valuable minutes as the team’s first forward substitute off the bench. I was a frequent dinner guest at the Mastin homestead, a large former farm, and Grace and Mike went out of their way to include me in numerous social activities hosted there, making me feel welcome and introducing me to many folks from the community.

The Honeoye girls played only league games during my first coaching season. We went a surprising 8-2, good for second place. Entering the Section V playoffs, we had modest expectations, simply hoping to win one game which would be the first girls’ basketball sectional win in the school’s history.

Early succsss
Good fortune came our way in the post season. We reached our one-win goal in our opening game played at Webster High. Things got a whole lot more serious when we upset an undefeated and heavily favored local power in the quarterfinals at Geneseo High. A one-point nail biter in the semi-finals at SUNY Alfred elevated us to the championship game.
To say our nerves were frayed in the title game would be an understatement. Accustomed to playing in front of maybe two-dozen fans all season long, we were astonished when it seemed the entire town of Honeoye headed off to Rochester for the finals. Fathers of the girls, dressed in Honeoye sweatshirts, led cheers from the sidelines delighting the huge throng when, intentionally or not, they misspelled H-O-N-E-O-Y-E during a chant.

When the final horn sounded, our Honeoye girls were champions, the first Section V championship team, girls or guys, in school history. The community went crazy. A gigantic tribute assembly was held in school the morning after we secured the title with school dismissed for the day after the program ended. Overnight, the status of girls’ sports in Honeoye took on new meaning.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I arrived at the funeral parlor last Wednesday. It had been 38 years since our fledgling team had been crowned and nearly 35 years since I had seen any of the Mastin girls. But, the power of the connections made so long ago, more than survived the test of time.
Penny spotted me almost immediately when I walked through the door, embracing me in a long hug, burying her face into my shoulder and thanking me over and over for coming. Laurie and Lisa were equally as welcoming, Laurie’s youngest son is an accomplished baseball player and college freshman in a Florida school. Of course, we got along famously. Lisa was eager to update me on the whereabouts and accomplishments of all the gals who were basketball teammates so many years ago.

Catching up with the girls was easy and effortless. Their enthusiasm in my being there was genuine and sincere. A time lapse of nearly four decades melted away in seconds.
After saying my goodbyes and making my exit I was gratified to have provided the girls a pleasant surprise and the chance to step back from their trying time, look back momentarily and remember some remarkable long-ago days. And once again, I was reminded of the powerful connector between player and coach high school athletics can be.