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The core of sports

Recently, I followed two Virginia high school boys basketball teams en route to state title games at the Siegel Center located at Virginia Commonwealth University.

One of those teams is near and dear to my heart. The Madison County Mountaineers come from my alma mater and competed in the Group A Division 1 tournament. The other team was the Broadway Gobblers of my girlfriend's old high school, who competed in the Group AA Division 4 tournament.

Madison was undefeated all of last year before losing in the state semifinals. The Mountaineers lost a great coach in Tim Taylor - who returned as an assistant to the Virginia women's basketball team - but they brought back almost all of their players and were geared up for another run at the state title, hoping to finish the season the right way this year.

Broadway, on the other hand, kind of came from nowhere and got hot at the right time. Don't get me wrong. The Gobblers were a solid team, finishing the regular season at 14-6, but I don't think many people were expecting them to make it to the championship.

I attended all but one of Madison's regional and state games, and Broadway's regional semifinal and state final. There I witnessed why sports can be so captivating.

Madison cruised through the entire year, rarely winning by less than 10 points, and entered the title game against Alta Vista High School as the favorite with 25-0 record. The Mountaineers destroyed the Colonels 59-31 in the regional championship. Broadway was 21-6, playing 22-2 Potomac Falls High School, which it had lost to 63-50 during the regular season.

The games were simply stunning. Alta Vista came out fighting tooth and nail, giving Madison all it could handle. The score at halftime was 21-20 Madison. During the second half, the two teams engaged in an epic battle and were tied at 27 points apiece after three quarters and at 34 with about four minutes left in the game. Madison eventually prevailed 41-38, even after several nail-biting missed free throws that gave Alta Vista multiple chances to tie or win the game. As the final buzzer sounded, the team was joined in a frenzied celebration by students who rushed the floor.

Madison's all-time leading scorer and Region B Player of the Year Logan Terrell lifted coach Ben Breeden into the air. The victory was vindication not only for the players who lost in the semifinal last year, but also for Breeden, who lost in a tight 1997 state title game as a player. As time expired, Breeden rushed the floor, where he would have been indiscernible from the kids if not for his a tie and button-up shirt.

The noise, especially in the game's waning moments, was deafening. In reality, there were probably only a few thousand Madison fans at the game, but it seemed as if the whole county was there - and Madison County's population is around 14,000. I, for one, was screaming my head off.

In another dramatic title game, Broadway and Potomac Falls put on an absolute slugfest in front of thousands of loyal followers of both teams. Broadway alone took five charter buses to help some of their fans make the 2.5-hour trip. The game, by the way, didn't start until 9:20 p.m. With the time change, fans didn't get back home until 3 a.m.

With only a couple seconds remaining in the game, Broadway's Adam Caplinger stepped to the line - with his team trailing 52-51 - for two free throws with a chance to win. He missed the first off the back of the rim but the senior confidently stepped to the line and sunk the second - even though the ball touched every part of the rim - and the game headed to one overtime period, and then another. Potomac Falls eventually took control and won 69-64. The game ended up lasting 40 minutes - the equivalent of a college game. Both teams had to be exhausted - and they both deserved to win - but there could only be one champion.

I've often thought about how college sports are purer than professional sports. The players seem to play with more heart and determination because winning the game and playing hard is what matters - they aren't playing for huge salaries like professional athletes. But watching these high school playoff games and seeing the sheer jubilation of the winners and the agony of defeat etched on the faces of the losers taught me there's another level to this world. As hard as a lot of college athletes play, high school athletes still might play harder. Some college players receive full-ride athletic scholarships and some even have aspirations of playing professionally. Sure, they aren't playing for professional contracts, but in a sense, they are paid to play for the school. Most high school athletes, though, will not attend college for free or turn pro or even play in college. They are playing for pride and for the joy of accomplishing something only a few select teams are able to do. It's about the team striving for something greater than each individual player, and this is realized fully through high school sports, where the drive to win is untainted by long-term contracts and signing bonuses.

I'm not saying all professional and college athletes are spoiled brats. Certainly, there are professional athletes who give 100 percent effort, and a majority of college athletes don't go pro. And of course, there are high school athletes who might not play hard or care about the team. But for the most part, and especially when it comes to championships, it seems as if the high school players are the ones playing with reckless abandon. I can assure you that high school teams provide their own madness come March.

Professional athletes are paid even without championship wins, and college athletes usually keep their scholarships unless they fail academically or are arrested.

Sure, professional and college athletes play hard, but when contrasted with the journey high school players embark on each season, you realize how significant these games are for high school athletes. This is all they have. This is the end of the line for them. If Madison had lost, those players would probably have only remembered the two state tournament losses and not the wins that came before them. That's how their basketball careers would have ended. This is why the losers appear so heartbroken - even crying at times - and why the winners are so happy to the point where they, too, are crying.

In this day and age of one-and-done college superstars and misbehaving pros playing for ballooning guaranteed salaries, it's refreshing to get a breath of fresh air and truly see what lies at the core of sports - emotion in full display, unabashed and unfiltered.