Monday, January 21, 2013

Hoopin' weekend

It was a hoopin' weekend.

We traveled this past weekend to watch my brother-in-law Matt's basketball team play. That's Minot State University (No. Dakota), a newly minted NCAA Div. II team to those who are unaware. It was Michelle and my (and the boys') first time to see Matt live, although we've watched numerous games when was head coach at Jamestown College and now that he's with the Beavers.

For me, a lover of roundball, it was a special treat. Watching games is so much more fun when you feel like you have something invested that is more than casual entertainment. Granted, I love my Duke Blue Devils, as it's my alma mater. But there's a different feeling when someone from your (extended) family is involved, whose energy, ambitions and livelihood are on the line. You are all in, and there's no in between.

It is that way with Matt's teams. So, when we looked at Minot State's schedule at the beginning of the year, this weekend jumped out at us. For two reasons, principally: One, the team would be in northeast Nebraska and Sioux Falls, So. Dakota, the closest they'd be to us this season. And, that, folks, is not all that close, 5 1/2 hours away. We also noticed that the first game, on Friday, of the back-to-back twinbill was against Wayne State, where Matt started as a graduate assistant and rose to assistant coach in four-plus years there. So, let's say there'd be a little something extra for that contest, no matter what Matt or anyone else said.

We took off for Wayne about 1 on Friday afternoon. The game started at 8, so we figured we had plenty of time. Yes and no. I tend to underestimate Iowa's width, so that took a little longer than anticipated. Michelle and I underestimated how long it takes little boys to get out of a car, walk into a bathroom, pull down britches and pee. And, neither of us took fully into account driving rural roads in a remote section of Nebraska at night.

I'm talking Nebraska 175 west. Go look at the map. 175 branches from I-29, heading like a straight shot west. Road atlases are deceptive in many ways. States generally fit on one page, no matter their size. So you get Nebraska on one page, just as you'd have Rhode Island. Need to look at that legend, because what may be a thumb's length in Nebraska is probably the same as driving the length of the Ocean State. Maybe more.

Back to 175. This stretch looked simple, as I said, nothing more than a straight line west. Well, we got off I-29 and within minutes were crossing an old steel-trussed bridge that arched like a gymnast on a balance beam. To our surprise, we saw a sign as we crossed that there was a toll. $1. When we got over the bridge, there was a single-level structure a half-step up from a shack. No gate. No lights. No sign telling you to stop. We slowed down, unsure where the window was, or the attendant for that matter. As we drove along the side, we saw a figure at a window. We stopped. An old lady in a dress slid open the window, took the dollar, politely said thank you and slid it shut, all in about 15 seconds. Transaction completed, we were on our way, and our lady probably returned to her knitting.

175 is one of the most entertaining roads I've driven. For the better part of 10 miles, it was like riding a roller coaster. Up, up we go, reach the top, and down, down, down we go. Reach the bottom, and up, up, up we go again. Hump after hump, hill after hill, exactly the same. No curve, no deviation. Up, down, up, down. A biker's nightmare, a geologist's dream.

We made it to Wayne about 20 minutes before game time, with me gunning it about 80 on the rural roads. The game was entertaining, if not thrilling. Both teams appeared to be going through the motions, not playing badly per se, but not competing with any more intensity than you might find at a NBA regular season matchup. But Wayne State made the mistake of letting Minot State hang around for too long, and a couple of treys late put the Beavers ahead, and they played excellent defense down the stretch to steal a win.

The next night, we were in South Dakota, as the Beavers took on Augustana College, a superior team on paper and in the standings. Minot fell behind early and trailed by 8-12 points most of the game. Yet late, they forced a few turnovers, made some nice plays and nearly pulled off the upset, losing by two.

All in all, a good weekend for team comprised of NAIA players playing in a higher league. Credit to Matt, he's got his team playing cohesively, with passion, intensity and grittiness. The players have bought into his philosophy, and they've notched some nice wins to reward their effort and conviction. They may not be pretty, but the Beavers are a fun team to watch, a bunch you can feel good about rooting for.

I also realized from this weekend how complicated it is to coach college basketball at any level. It is not simply coaching basketball, although the practices, the strategizing, the game tape analysis, the in-game instructions and adjustments are so much more complex than even an ardent fan like me can fully appreciate. There's also all the logistics; the team meals, arranging the hotels, the travel (by bus, too), the academics, the management of players and your own coaches. It's just a heck of a lot of moving parts. And underlying all of that is one simple truth: Winning matters entirely.

You've got to really love what you're doing to put up with all that.

We know Matt does. And we're glad we have his team to root for.

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