Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Finals (part one)

I grew up in a small town.

7,302, to be exact, according to the sign at the city limits. It seemed big to me, though.

There were two sides of town (at least to me), split cleanly in half by railroad. The other side of town, where the rich people lived, was called East Cliff.

Our side didn't have a name, but it was a nice place to live.

On our side of town, though, even in a small town, we had neighborhoods. All of these neighborhoods met in the same park to play baseball and football. And over time, rivalries developed.

Kids who grew up on Driftwood Drive were a little different from kids who grew up on Daniel Moore, even though they were only blocks away. Same thing for kids who grew up on Crosby versus kids who grew up on Westover.

We were all friends, but we hated losing to each other, because nothing is more intense than a neighborhood rivalry.

In Texas, the neighborhood rivalry is between Austin and San Antonio.

Most of the kids know each other. Many of them are friends, some of them good friends. The one thing they can't stand, though is losing to each other.

"Who do you want to play in the finals?" I asked Eli 14.7 after their playoff sweep in the semis.

"San Antonio," he said. "I wouldn't want to go out any other way."

He got his wish.

His career record against San Antonio over three seasons was 1-5. They've finished second and first the last two seasons. Eli's team had never made the finals.

This season, though, had been very close.

We beat them 3-2 in a shootout in November, then lost 2-0 in a game where Eli played even better than when they won. So it was 1-1 on the season, and the first time we'd beaten them in three years.

This team, though--Eli's team--had something going.

We hadn't lost since the start of the new year, and were on a 16-game winning streak. We were 30-7 for the season. Both goalies were red hot. San Antonio was beat up and missing two good players.

If there was ever a year, this was the year.

Eli wasn't starting the first game, because he'd played the semi-final clincher the week before.

From the opening puck drop, the game was a battle. San Antonio went up 1-0 early in the first, and then early in the second, one of our players was ejected.

Very, very questionable call, but functionally it meant that we lost a top-four defenseman and San Antonio had a five minute power play.

This was a chance for San Antonio to blow the game wide, wide open. They had one kid who could play AAA for many teams, and he was the star. Even though he played defense, the offense flowed entirely through him, and he would play thirty minutes of a forty-five minute game.

He'd scored the first goal, and now he was out for blood.

He didn't get it, though. Somehow, the five minutes passed and San Antonio didn't score, mostly because our goalie made half a dozen outstanding saves. Then, barely a minute after the penalty ended, we scored.

Middle of the second, and now it was 1-1.

From that point on, we started putting on more and more pressure, and eventually, San Antonio wore down. It was 4-2 when our second kid got ejected (this time it was a good call).

Another five-minute power play.

Again, though, it was largely a missed opportunity. They scored to make it 4-3, but we scored again and held on for a 5-3 win.

The second game was only three hours later, which meant we only had two hours before Eli had to be back at the rink to prepare. He had a small meal and I tried to keep the talk light.

Last year, his team hardly won a game. This year, he had a chance to clinch the state championship. That's a long ride, and I wasn't sure how he was feeling.

Plus, this could be his last time playing for an Austin team.

We got back to the rink, and started unloading the car.

"Give it to me," Eli said, referring to the three keys I always give him before every game, even though I don't think he really needs them anymore.

We both like it, though.

"Okay," I said. "Track puck to glove. Move from square to square. See the play."

"Got it," he said.

He started carrying his gear toward the rink, and I walked with him as Gloria went to park the car. I put my arm around him.

Eli looked up, and there were tears in his eyes.

He buried his face in my shoulder and began to weep. "I don't want to go," he said.

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