By Wendy Henrichs, athletic director, Lincoln East High School
Athletics is an arena that receives a lot of attention, and too often it seems to be negative in nature. It’s hard for me to hear or read stories of sports and athletes gone wrong, especially when those things happen on the high school level.
High school athletics are special. I grew up loving the game. I loved all of it- the camaraderie, the training, the competition, the wins, the losses….the lessons. My teammates were my best friends and the only people more influential in my life than my coaches were my parents.
I loved it enough to pursue my athletic endeavors in college. I believed in the importance of the lessons I had learned in the athletic arena enough to make a career of teaching and coaching and eventually athletic administration. The past 19 years of that career have been at Lincoln East High School, where I’ve been blessed with watching young people experience the highs and lows that education-based high school athletics provide in their journey into adulthood. Experiencing both victory and defeat are crucial to our kids becoming the solid citizens we need them to be.
The first week in March was a pretty special one at East High. A group of young ladies pooled their collective talents – and their passion for basketball and commitment to each other – to pull off one of those championship runs that dreams are made of. As the tournament’s 8th seed, they were the darkhorse, the longshot, the Cinderella story.
As a former athlete, coach and now athletic administrator, I find that Cinderella stories are what I live for. Something I heard a very long time ago, that has stuck with me, was this: “Winning is great- but winning when no one thinks you can, is just awesome.” There was a lot of awesome that week.
The Spartans won a state championship trophy and the coveted Nebraska Coaches Association/National Guard Sportsmanship Award. The state championship is truly awesome, but the sportsmanship award too, is significant. It represents all that is right with high school athletics. It required our coaches and players to conduct themselves with poise and class over the course of three ball games, two of which were won by 2 points each and the other in double overtime. They were simply outstanding on and off the court. Time and again, I watched our players pull each other, and the opponent, up off the floor. And the theme each time they talked to the press? They talked about team- and about how much fun they were having playing this game they loved with teammates they loved.
Student body attendance and behavior is a huge factor. We urged the East High kids to show up – to cheer, to show their support, to “Paint PBA Blue”. They did – in a very impressive fashion. Which then required us to corral 600 or 700 students in a fairly restricted space and guide and supervise their teenage enthusiasm and giddiness. The kids were stellar. They cheered, they chanted and they implored their classmates to keep going when things looked dire – to find a way. A group of administrators, coaches and teachers worked with these kids and had a blast getting caught up in the enthusiasm.
On the night of the state championship, those kids looked up in the vastness of the arena to see a sea of blue. They saw not just their parents and grandparents, but they saw their parents’ friends and the people they work with; their neighbors and the gal who cuts their hair; the school secretaries and the guy who delivers their mail.
I looked up and saw alumni – oodles of former East students, some who had obviously dug a 10-year-old Spartan sweatshirt or T-shirt from their closet and made their way to Pinnacle Bank Arena.
I saw the familiar faces of past East High parents – some who haven’t had kids at East for 5 or 10 years– or longer. They were there, wearing royal blue and cheering as if those kids out there belonged to them. And in a very real way, they did. And it wasn’t just people with East connections who were inspired by these kids. In the hours after the game my phone blew up with congrats from coaches and administrators in Lincoln and beyond.
By the next morning former Northeast baseball coach Jerome Ehrlich had produced one of his amazing works of art- a painting of the winning shot. A prized treasure that now sits in the East trophy case next to the state championship and sportsmanship trophies. What a gift of true class and sense of community. It was obvious that those kids fed off of the amazing show of support from their families, friends and people they didn’t even know.
So how do you say thank you to a community of people who came out and helped will these kids to the magic that produced that unlikely championship? I’ve heard it said in athletics that, ‘You win or you learn’- indicating that most lessons come from losses. Although many times this is true, this was one of those rare instances where we got the best of both worlds. East High brought home two trophies that day and in the process learned a great lesson on the value of sportsmanship and of community.
I believe, and I think the players believe, that the amazing support helped give them the confidence and poise to achieve great things. They learned that people are attracted to, and appreciate, young people with a work ethic and who embrace a challenge with fearlessness and humility. And sportsmanship? It’s not a lost art- it’s a set of expectations worth working toward. It’s not something that we just demand from our kids, it’s something we must model for them on a daily basis.
And now we keep moving forward. It’s a new season with new challenges and hope-filled dreams; dreaming of that next championship trophy or of that chance to win when no one thinks you can. We will remember that weekend when a bunch of girls in shorts and ponytails inspired us and when we responded as a school and a community with our very best.
Thank you Spartan Nation – and Lincoln – for showing up; for supporting our young people; for demonstrating what community means.