BENAC: March Madness offers lots of thrills, challenges

Ah! March has arrived and with it comes slightly warmer weather, rivers of water from melting snow, more regular visits from the sun and March Madness. Yes, it’s that magical time of year when the college and high school level basketball teams start the exciting and grueling run to find the best of the best.

For local area basketball teams, it can be an exciting or depressing time. Most teams will be knocked out in district games and have to wait till next season to get back on track. Seniors who have played their whole lives see their basketball career come to an abrupt end.

Other teams will push into the regionals and face tough teams they haven’t seen all year. Regional worthy teams are top of the line and make for some of the most challenging and exciting basketball games of the season.

If surviving regionals is a hardy test then pushing into the quarterfinals, semifinals and into the state finals takes a true test of determination, skill and team work.

Surviving March Madness is a task worthy of only the hardiest basketball teams. And the hardiest sports writers.

Now, I don’t want to equate my work with the hard work these excellent teams put in every day. They have played a sport their whole lives to get to where they’re going and are true athletes. I doubt I could make a free throw these days and anybody that has seen my physique lately can tell you I’m no athlete.

But being a sports writer on the March Madness trail is also a simultaneously exciting and depressing time. We have to travel to new cities that we rarely ever, if ever, visit and see some top teams play some excellent games.

Anybody that was at the Johannesburg-Lewiston and Alcona girls district final last Friday can attest to the excitement of these types of games. Both teams played at the top of their game all night and were so evenly matched that the game stuck to a 1-3 point spread for nearly the entire game.

As a sports writer, these are the kinds of games you live for: the “edge of your seat” close call games that keep you engaged and prompt your sharpest, most enjoyable writing.

But it can be a difficult task for the local area sports writer. March Madness is a thrill, but it can also be a drain on our poor bodies and our beleagured minds.

These are the days where you find can yourself driving for an hour and a half through freak blizzard conditions to cover a game, trudging into the office at 10:30 at night, writing your story and getting out at sometime past midnight, getting to sleep by two o’clock and waking up at nine to repeat the process.

This physical drain often runs headlong into the mental drain of watching more and more local teams getting eliminated.

It’s an inevitability: every team, but one will get knocked out of the district. In a district of 10 teams, nine teams end their season. If you average a team to about 15 players, that’s 135 kids going home sad.

It’s almost nerve wracking to see the coaches and players you talk to all year, who dominated in their division and their district, run up against a brick wall and lose.

You see the coaches and players hang their heads and walk slowly into the locker room while the winning team cheers triumphantly and holds aloft their trophy. You see the winners showered with praise, accolades and endless amounts of flash photography.

You don’t see the losers sitting on the bus on the long ride home thinking about went wrong.

As a journalist, I strive to be bias free and I think I achieve that fairly well. But when you see two girls holding each other and crying, it’s hard not to feel a little sting of upset when you know you have to go back to the office and explain to the world why they lost.

Regionals are even more nerve wracking for team, parents and journalists alike. At best, two to four teams are going to make it to regionals. And the teams they are facing are the toughest teams they’re likely to face all season.

You naturally want the local area teams to make it as far as possible. It makes for great, engaging stories and keeps you busy. But you also root for the kids deep down because it’s great seeing them succeed against tough odds against stacked downstate teams.

But regionals are tough business and watching the local teams fall is tough. It’s great when they do push further but as they progress, they’re more likely to run into that one team that has their number. It’s also possible that they may simply have one bad game at a time when bad games can’t be afforded.

However, the world of March Madness isn’t all wallowing in misery. Watching teams cheer in excitement after winning an important game (or a championship) can warm even the sternest sports writer’s heart.

And following a local team of hard working players beat the odds by winning district, knocking out the tough team in regionals and making it further and further is a thrill.

One of my fondest memories as a child was watching the Hillman boys baseball team win three state championships in the 90s. Those who haven’t followed a team to a state finals can’t imagine the excitement and pride of knowing your little school was the best in the state at something.

That’s the excitement and thrill that pushes players, coaches, parents and sports writers alike during March Madness.

Will the players you’ve seen play all year have what it takes to make it through round after round of tougher and tougher teams to make it to the big game and prove they’re the best team in the state?

Only time will tell. Until then, I’ll gladly drive 150 miles per game and stay at the office til midnight to stay on top of the thrill and excitement of March Madness.