I know what sports-inflicted pain feels like.I’m not talking about a sprained ankle, or a torn ACL. That kind of pain only scratches the surface, literally. The emotional highs and lows cut a lot deeper—a fact that was written on the faces of East Hampton soccer players, particularly the 14 seniors, after a 4-2 loss to Greece Athena in the New York State Class A Championship game in Middletown on Sunday.
I know what it feels like to lose in a state championship game in your senior year. And I know what it feels like to be so emotionally invested in a team that you lose sleep or even feel physically ill after a devastating defeat. (Shout-out to the Villanova men’s basketball team, the New York Knicks of the 1990s, and Vinny Testaverde’s New York Jets.)
I often find myself wondering why we care so much about sports, why we allow sports to play on our emotions to such a degree, why we allow a game—something meant to give us relief and distraction from life’s day-to-day stresses—cause us so much grief.
As much as a loss by our favorite pro or college team can hurt, the emotional stakes are even higher in high school sports. The boys and girls on the field or in the gym aren’t strangers; they aren’t larger-than-life characters making ungodly sums of money, living a life of luxury. They are our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, classmates, friends, neighbors, students. In short, they are us. And this is what makes enduring the potential for bitter disappointment so worth it.
There were a number of things I witnessed at the end of Sunday’s game that moved me more than anything I would have witnessed had the Bonackers won, I’m quite sure. Nick West, the team’s leading scorer and star midfielder, who propelled his team to the championship game with two goals, was unable to play in his last high school game because of a broken foot he suffered in the semifinal. Instead of wallowing in misery at the end, he had his arm around teammate Camilo Godoy, comforting him after the loss.
There was the fan support, too, which was quite simply phenomenal. Not one but two spectator buses made the trip to Middletown, which means East Hampton’s contingent far outnumbered the fans from Greece Athena, a Rochester area school that also had a long trek to the championship site. The Bonac faithful were faithful indeed, confidently chanting “I believe that we will win!” throughout the final game, waving homemade signs that looked like works of art, and even giant cardboard cutouts of the players’ faces. The way they cheered for the team after the loss, thanking them for the best season in program history, was a sight to see—and if you haven’t seen it, there’s video at 27east.com. Talk about something you’d never see in professional sports.
I also loved that these boys weren’t afraid to cry. Too often, I’ve seen boys struggle to contain their emotions after a tough loss, while the girls typically let the tears fly. Why should there be any difference? Expecting men and boys to hold back their tears is an old-fashioned notion that just needs to go away.
I loved the makeup of this team too. Black, Hispanic, white; different races and ethnicities were represented on the field, and on the sidelines, with fans cheering in English and Spanish. But the support was universal.
As I walked off the field to my car, feeling the disappointment of the loss myself, even though I’m just the local reporter, I turned to Randi Cherill, East Hampton’s athletic trainer, who was walking alongside me. “I feel like I want to cry,” I said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like when you actually have kids on the team.”
“I know,” she said, with tears in her eyes—“I have hundreds.”
The hurt of losing a state final cut deep for sure. But it’s a wound that will heal—and, I’m sure, will be far overshadowed by the joy the sport brought to those 14 seniors and everyone else who was lucky enough to go along for the ride.
Cailin Riley is the sports editor for The Press News Group publications.