The bittersweet truth about a playoff game is this: No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, no matter what your season record has been, only one team can take home the trophy.
As third-seed in the tournament, and, on paper at least, there may have been a naysayer or two who didn't expect you'd be vying for that trophy in the first place. Where you stand now -- in center court, or behind the bench (how could anyone sit down today?) -- is where the No. 1 seed was expected to be. Yes, that team; the one you fought last night, the one that, at the end of five heart-racing, hair-raising games, you finally beat.
You woke up this chilly clear morning knowing you're the underdogs, yet for once not fazed by the fact that during the entire season, this team you're up against lost only two matches. You lost 15, several to your opponent.
Today, though feels different. There's something in the air you can almost reach out and put in your pocket; it mingles with the smell of dry leaves and of pumpkin spices from the nearby Starbucks, creating an atmosphere of anticipation on this crazy, happy Friday afternoon.
Maybe it's the camaraderie: you've eaten your last six meals together, more than you eat with your families these days. Of the last 48 hours, you've spent two-thirds of them with each other.
Maybe it's the bleachers, crammed with the standing-room-only crowd of classmates, parents, teachers -- bleachers that during the regular season held only smatterings of your and your opponents' own moms and dads.
More than all that though, something else fills the air -- something you find yourself looking around for like you would a voice in the darkness, or the source of a tantalizing aroma you can't quite place. You can't hold onto it, but it takes hold of you, this belief you can't shake if you wanted to -- a belief in your talent and your tenacity, in twists of fate and in today. And mostly, a belief in yourselves, in each other, in your team.
All through the season, the coach has worked you hard. He's honed your talent, sharpened your skill, drilled into you that you have what it takes to be winners. He's gotten frustrated when you let your emotions overtake your prowess, when teams -- namely, the one you're playing today -- broke your resolve. But all along, he's believed in you.
Yesterday, when you asked him to wear a tie for this game, he told you he wants this team to win more than he has any other. The seniors were freshman when he started coaching. "I've watched you grow up," he said. "I want this for you."
So here you are in the championships. You come onto the court smiling, laughing, talking, cheering, doing high kicks, volleying. You warm up to music from Remember the Titans and Lord of the Rings, as well as songs from bands with names like Flo Rida and The Glitch Mob.
You're introduced -- 18 individuals whose spirit for the sport has mingled and made you blood brothers, whose passion has made you a team. Each one of you steps out from the line and waves, first to one side of the gymnasium, then to the other. The crowd roars.
The first game starts as the numbers in the bleachers grow. Guys who ran in the championship cross-country meet earlier today -- the ones that, as a group, you went out to cheer -- show up, some with faces painted blue and gold, or medals dangling from their necks. They scream chants that you, the players, have taught them -- these secret handshakes no other school, no other group, no other team would understand.
"This is B-Stet!" shouts No. 10, after No. 11 earns yet another phenomenal point.
"What up?!" answers everyone else on the team and, by season's end, the spectators as well.
When your team blocks a hit that leads to a point, the kid who shaved his head for the tournament leaps to the center of the court, raises his knee and belts out, "You! Shall not...!!"
"Pass!" screams the team and the classmates and the parents and anyone else who remembers this from the pep rally.
You win the first game handily. The second you lose, surprising yourselves. In the third, you fight to a tie, and then your opponent breaks the tie by the requisite two points. Game four is close; you play with grace and with heart, but you can't pull out a win. You congratulate the winners, accept your second-place trophy. You hug each other and some of you cry, boys whose moms say they haven't seen cry in years.
At home, you find a video of the game online. You flop on the couch and watch it, again and again and again. You nap, wake up, eat something, fall asleep again.
Maybe you don't voice it, but you inherently know that this day, this exact moment with these particular teammates, will never come around again. Sure, you'll play more games -- intramural and pickup and club. Those of you who don't graduate this year will fight your way through another season. But this exact mingling of dynamics, of energy, of passion, won't come along again.
You'll go back to school in a day or two, sit through classes, eat lunch, go home at the end of the day instead of heading for the gym. But forever you'll share this season, this tournament, this game. Your opponent may have taken the victory and the trophy home, but nobody can ever take away everything else, which forever belongs to all of you.
At odd moments through the years, in snippets or in waves, you'll remember this feeling. On an autumn afternoon, when the air is sweet and golden and for whatever reason you feel crazy happy, you'll get whiffs of pumpkin and locker rooms and leather. You'll swear you hear squeaks of shoes on polished gym floors, and cheers that you haven't thought about in ages. You'll sense something you can't quite grasp, but which has hold of you -- just like it did on the day you learned what it means to be part of something much bigger, much shinier, much more meaningful than even the most beautiful and sought-after trophy.