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March is a magical time for sports

There are only two truly special times during the sports season.

These are times when the four major sports in the country are going on at the same time, some of which are in the postseason. The first is October where the excitement of the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series flows along with the heart of the NFL season and the start of the NBA and NHL seasons. Fans can get all of their tastes satisfied in just a matter of weeks.

The other time is in March and that is a little more of a magical period for me because the focus is on amateur sports. The professional leagues are still active with the NBA and NHL seasons moving toward the playoffs and MLB spring training still in full swing. The NFL isn’t necessarily in action, but things are progressing toward the Draft, so give it time and that’s all anybody will be talking about.

But for the most part, it’s been all about college and high school sports. The MHSAA boys basketball playoffs finished two weeks ago in disappointing fashion for Upper Peninsula fans as Dollar Bay fell in the semifinals and Iron Mountain had a state title stolen from them thanks to some atrocious officiating. The girls tournament finished up yesterday with St. Ignace losing in the state championship and Westwood coming just short of making it to the campus of Calvin College and the semis. Over in hockey, Marquette made it to the state semifinals in Plymouth and Houghton got to the state finals. When you think about it, it was a pretty impressive year for U.P. winter sports and all the teams deserve a hearty congrats for what they’ve accomplished.

The majority of eyes in our country though are on the NCAA basketball tournaments and to a slightly lesser extent, the men’s hockey tournament, whose field will be announced later today. Millions fill out a basketball tournament bracket every year for pools with friends, strangers or coworkers. Seriously, so many working hours are lost each year because people are watching the games at work. Schools aren’t much better. Growing up, my teachers would devote time in class to watching the games. The gym teachers would devote class Thursday and Friday to free time. Basically, you could go play in the gym or go watch the tournament. Even in my other classes, the teachers tried to fit in time for the students to watch the games. My ninth grade French teacher, who was not a basketball fan, knew how much the games meant to us, so she would make sure her lesson was finished halfway through the period. That way we could use the last 20 minutes to watch the games. I’m not sure if teachers still do that, but if they do, keep it up. Listening to the commentary and watching the action during the games are what started to get me interested in journalism. The desire didn’t truly blossom until I got to college, but the seed was planted.

The tournaments are a blast and it seems like even the most casual sports fans can get caught up in it. My wife isn’t much of a basketball fan (she prefers hockey), but she gets excited to fill out a bracket each year, hoping her casual knowledge (her words) can beat my professional knowledge and win our bracket prize-a Dairy Queen blizzard. In the 10-plus years we’ve been together as a couple, she’s manage to win more times than not.

The tournament was also a bonding time for my dad and me. One year, my mom was hosting a fundraiser meeting or something in our basement, which kept us from watching the game on the big television we owned. So we watched the games in the kitchen on the much smaller TV set. We also turned out the lights so we could see the game better. As I’m typing this, I realize how times have changed. Right now, I’m drinking a beer and sitting on a futon in a well-lit room, watching Michigan handle Montana. Back then, I was eating chicken wings in the dark on the kitchen floor. It’s like I was a caveman.

This was back in the day when the games were only on CBS, so if the game you were watching was a dud, you had to hope they’d eventually switch you to a different game or showed you highlights of the better games periodically to spare you the mess you were currently watching. It was a little frustrating in that regard, but it was still a fun experience, heading to the refrigerator for another pop as I’d update the bracket that I cut out of the newspaper.

The memories are fun, but what makes it so magical compared to October, or any other time of the year? I think it’s because the players, basketball or hockey, are just playing because they love the game. Unlike NBA and NHL players, college and high school athletes don’t have millions of dollars to make up for a heartbreaking defeat. These are players who work, bleed and sweat all year long to reach the postseason and their compensation is simple. The excitement and sheer joy of winning the tournament and the connections that you made with your friends and teammates along the way. When you see teams celebrate after a championship, all their hands are on the trophy and sometimes the nets from the hoops are draped over their necks. It just fills your heart with joy. All that effort, for no money, just to stand at the end as a champion. It’s a beautiful image.

At the end of the men’s basketball tournament, the song “One Shining Moment” plays while showing the highlights of the tournament. Some call it corny and there is that element to it, but most people enjoy it because it shows how great the tournament was and it showcases the effort that the players put in. One of the song’s verses goes like this “But time is short and the road is long. In the blinking of an eye, that moment’s gone. And when it’s done, win or lose. You always did your best ’cause inside you knew… That One Shining Moment, you reached deep inside. One Shining Moment, you knew you were alive.” You can apply those lyrics to any amateur sport and they’ll probably ring true.

Whether it’s high school or college, basketball or hockey, men or women, amateur sports all come down to the same thing. Players working hard during a long season for a chance at a championship, but the ending is short. You either win or you lose, but either way, you know that in the end, you gave it your all and the spirit of the game filled you inside with emotion.

There’s a reason the NCAA men’s tournament is trademarked as March Madness because crazy things happen and you can easily get caught up in the whole experience. The spirit of athletics is alive during this month and it’s not for money. It’s just for the love of the game.

And that’s what sets March apart from the rest of the year. It’s just a pure and magical time.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.