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Tears are part of what we are: March Madness and Sad Water

67 teams must lose to crown a champion, but everyone is a winner.

Warning: This won’t deal with the San Antonio Spurs or the NBA. Instead, it addresses March Madness (which begins today), high school soccer, and life. Not to worry, there will be plenty of Spurs and NBA material to address later, especially once we get to the playoffs (or for the Spurs, if they get to the playoffs).

March Madness. Every basketball fan loves it. Every basketball player dreams of playing in it. At the start of the season, every team sets their goal as making it to the Final Four.

I attended eight Final Fours when I was coaching college basketball, all of them memorable. San Antonio has been lucky enough to host the men’s Division 1 Final Four several times, most recently in 2018, and is scheduled to host the entire women’s bracket this year.

Other than winning the championship game, the biggest celebrations often occur in that moment when a team wins its league tournament or receives its invite on Selection Sunday, thereby qualifying to go to the “Big Dance”. A wild celebration ensues — even though the celebrating teams are almost certainly setting themselves up for tears.

Of the 68 teams which celebrate getting in, 67 will lose their last game. Of those 68 teams which wildly celebrate getting in, 34 lose their first Big Dance game, and 52 (over three-quarters) will lose before or during the first weekend. Those losses will end their seasons. The losing team’s locker rooms will have many tears, especially from the seniors, most of whom will never play “organized ball” again.

When my super-daughter Alissa was a senior in high school, we talked about the possibility of her trying out for the soccer team when she went to college that fall. While she was an excellent high school player, we didn’t know if she was good enough to play in college —college teams at all levels are generally composed of only the very best players on their high school teams. (Contrary to the myth that anyone is good enough to play Division 3 sports.)

I told her that whether she made the team or not, trying out for the team would be a great way for a freshman away from home to meet people on the new campus. I used the phrase “Instant friends” to describe the players she would meet while trying out for the team — to which she replied with something that I heard as “Sad Water”.

I had no idea what Sad Water meant, but it did sound like it could be an actual expression her high school friends used, or at least the name of some great Chief who played lacrosse centuries ago. In a moment, I realized she had actually said “Just add water” to respond to my “instant friends” comment. We both laughed a lot.

Since that time, my family has used the phrase “sad water” to mean tears. This became more meaningful when her wonderfully close-knit varsity soccer team did what virtually all teams do — they lost their final game.

After being a fairly weak team her junior year, their new coach had molded the team into a powerhouse, both because of their skills and teamwork, and because the team cared about playing the game the right way. Watching them play, I finally understood why soccer is called “The Beautiful Game”.

During the year, the team knocked off the top ranked team in their division and won most of their games. They also turned the tables on several teams who had crushed them the year before. Alissa’s team won one of those “revenge games” in the last game of the regular season.

The opposing team was already out of the playoff race, and therefore knew this would be their last game. They were extremely motivated to go out with a win — especially the seniors. With the score tied 1 - 1 in the final minutes, the wondrous midfielder on Alissa’s team (who later played at Rice) scored a spectacular goal, clinching the win. The team, and our sideline, exploded in joy.

At exactly the same moment as our joyous celebration, several of the girls on the other team, knowing that their season (and careers) were over, collapsed to the ground in tears. Much sad water.

Alissa’s team then went to the playoffs and won two playoff games. The second win was the final home game of the year, and all the seniors got a rose. Many smiles all around. A picture of Alissa, with her rose and her smile, is below.

With that win, the team qualified for the regional quarterfinals. Unfortunately, though they played valiantly and well, they lost 3 - 1 in a hard-fought game. They went down swinging, but, as in all games, one team loses. Sad water all around, a great deal of it.

That evening at home, my very wise daughter told me she and her team cried not because they lost (though that was part of it), but because their special season was over. The loss of the team, and of the camaraderie of that team, not the loss of the game, was what hurt so much. As I said, very wise.

Alissa and I learned from her season that the shedding of sad water can be an extremely good thing. When losing hurts enough that the team cries when the season ends, that proves the players care. If we are very lucky, tears are part of what we are.

I hope that the 67 teams that lose during March Madness care enough to cry when their seasons end. Enjoy and appreciate March Madness, both for the one team that wins their last game, and even more for the 67 other teams that don’t.

The late Jesse Winchester wrote and sang a song called “If Only”, lyrics below.

“If we only lived on the ocean floor

Below the waves and the storm and roar

We’d stroll along in our garden blue

Where the flowers all come and play with you

It’s true we’ll live in a great big tear

But the world above will never harm us here

Oh I, I just wonder where would I

Be without the tears I’ve cried

Unless you’re from another star

Tears are part of what we are.”