Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MAHA (part one)

"How's your leg?" I asked Eli 15.7 on the morning of the elimination game.

"Good enough to play," he said.

Translating, that meant he knew he was going to aggravate his existing injury, but that there was no way he wasn't going to play in the game that could end their season.

I was okay with that. Worried, but okay.

Teams that win MAHA, which is the Michigan state tournament, get an automatic invite to Nationals. Usually, at least one team from Michigan got an at-large berth as well, but with only 16 teams going, and Eli's team ranked #20, there wasn't going to be an at-large bid.

To go to Nationals, they had to win.

The night before, Eli's team had played its first game in pool play, against the #7 team in the country. The coach didn't start Eli, trying to protect him from further injury, but didn't tell him until shortly before the game.

Eli didn't know he was protecting him, and he was pissed.

What followed was a goalie meltdown.

Of the first five shots (which took the entire first period and two minutes of the second), three went in. Suddenly down 3-1, even though we were outplaying the team, the coach looked at Eli and said "You good, kid?"

"I'm good," Eli said.

"Then get in there," he said.

That sounds like something ripped from a Chip Hilton young adult sports book, but it's the truth.

Like I said, I was worried about Eli's injury, but I also knew he was skating out there pissed, and that he was going to play really, really well.

He did.

There was a moment in the third period, when he exploded across the crease and made a fully extended blocker save, that was one of the finest saves he'd ever made. If that shot had gone in, the game would be over.

It wasn't, though. Not quite.

All these emotions were washing over me as I watched him play. I still couldn't believe that he was playing in "A" league in Texas this time last year, and suddenly he was playing against the best teams in the country under the most intense pressure imaginable.

Didn't matter to him, though. He just played.

With just over a minute left, we (bafflingly) got a breakaway and scored.

3-2. Just needed one more.

And if this were a Chip Hilton novel, we would have gotten that goal, but in the real world, we didn't even get a shot off.

Final score 3-2. Eli had 15 saves on 15 murderous shots.

If they didn't win the next night, there would be no way they could advance to the semi-finals, and they would be done.

That's why "good enough to play" was going to have to be good enough to win.

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