No matter how many times players or coaches call a state championship “just another game,” it won’t change the fact that it isn’t.
It isn’t just the next game on the schedule or just another opponent. It is everything. Everything a team hopes for and has been working all year for. Sometimes, longer than that.
When the Columbus and Kendrick girls basketball teams play in their respective classifications’ state title games this week, the crowds will be louder, the games more intense and the result much more emotional.
I spoke this week with a couple of former girls basketball players who know what this situation is all about. I wanted to get a feel for what the Lady Blue Devils and Cherokees will face on Thursday and Friday, respectively, as well as what it will take for them to come out on top.
Janae McKinney and Simone High played for the 2008 Kendrick High team that took home the hardware in the Class AAA championship. Asked if this was just another game, they answered resoundingly to the contrary.
“That game is so much bigger,” McKinney said. “It’s the last game. You win that game, you win state. For me, it was my last game period. There was no tomorrow.”
High was a sophomore and more of a role player on the team, but she too could feel the difference.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “A bigger crowd, a lot of people going against you. There’s all the hype in your town, people getting ready for the game.”
McKinney, who played at Western Carolina from 2008-13, pointed to the emotion of the game as one of the hardest things to overcome. Players have nearly an entire week to ride the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with playing in such a big game.
That’s what the Columbus and Kendrick girls face right now. They can present a calm exterior, as if going through just another week of practice. Inside, they know it’s more than that.
Making it even more difficult is that it is something none of them have experienced. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. If you haven’t played in a state championship, you don’t know exactly what to expect.
McKinney and High both had a piece of advice.
“Relax,” McKinney said. “There’s nobody at state that can beat you but yourself. When things get tough, just remember what you’ve been through and what you’ve learned.”
“Always keep your composure and do the little things,” said High, a player on Flagler’s team, which will play in the Peach Belt Conference tournament this week. “Don’t try to do too much. Stick to what got you there.”
What got these two teams to the state championship is enough to get them through it with a win. The key will be keeping the situation in perspective and not letting the game become bigger than it is.
Even if it’s already really big.