While much of the nation is focusing on NCAA March Madness, the Sequoia and Palo Alto girls teams of the National Junior Basketball organization demonstrated the true value of sportsmanship.
Coach Matthew Atwater was dreading the announcement he had to make to his team of 12 and 13 year old Palo Alto girls, just moments before the tournament's champion game on March 13 in San Jose against the rival Sequoia girls team, comprised of Redwood City and Menlo Park girls.
His message was a difficult one to deliver. The Palo Alto team had to forfeit. And that was due to a mistake Atwater himself had made.
Amidst the chaos of his team winning games on their path to the championship, Atwater had misplaced a binder containing vital documents which were required as proof of his players' eligibility to play in the tournament.
League officials informed Atwater that league rules stated without the proper documentation, his team would not be allowed to formally compete in the day's tournament's final championship game. The coach had no choice but to accept that his team's championship dreams were dashed before the players even stepped on the court.
Before Atwater's announcement, his players were readying themselves for an attempt at redemption for two earlier losses during the regular season to the Sequoia team.
Then moments later, they learned the best they could hope for was second place.
The players already knew the winner of the Sequoia tournament receives a high rank in the National Junior Basketball's national tournament, featuring elite teams from across the West Coast, which takes place in Los Angeles this weekend. Some of them had been there the year before, when they lost a close game to a team from Tustin.
They also knew they would be heading back to the tournament, regardless of the championship game's outcome. The top three teams from the Sequoia bracket would earn spots in the big tournament. But a lower seed may jeopardize the team's chances to take another crack at the team that eliminated them the year prior.
"There were really some big eyes and stunned faces in that room," said Atwater, describing the reaction of his players when they heard news of their forfeit.
And though the rule book mandated the game be recorded as a loss by the girls from Palo Alto, the coaching staffs of both teams agreed to play the game regardless.
But as the jump ball to begin the game was tossed up into the air by the referee, only one of the teams on the court knew that the matches' outcome was had already been decided.
Sequoia Assistant Coach Andy Missan, along with head coach Rometra Craig, agreed to keep the pre-game knowledge of the forfeit secret, in fear that if the team found out then the players would struggle to find the motivation to compete at their fullest capacity.
Over the course of the season, the Sequoia girls had achieved recognition as the class of their league, despite being forced to overcome a plague of injuries to a few key players. The difficulties of the team's reoccurring health problems were compounded by their roster being only eight players deep, about half the size of most other teams in the league.
So much of the Sequoia team's success hinged on the players' ability to get pumped up for big games. As well, the players had to strive to find additional sources of motivation throughout each game to keep a high energy level. If they didn't, they risked becoming exhausted quickly, as each player on the small team frequently averaged more minutes of playing time per game than their opposition.
And like the girls from Palo Alto, Missan's team already knew they would be going to compete in the league's big tournament regardless of the outcome of the championship game. They also knew that due to their nearly perfect record in the regular season, they would likely be ranked high in the seedings and that awarded them an easier path to the league championship game.
In an attempt by the coach to avoid a lull in his team's energy level, the Sequoia players entered the tournament's final game as they would any other.
And through the first few minutes of the game, Missan's philosophy paid off. His team successfully managed to convert their pregame energy into an early lead. While on the opposing sideline, Atwater sensed his team's lackluster start was a side effect of their emotional letdown before tip-off.
As the game progressed, Atwater began cycling substitutions into the game from his bench and attempted to inspire those coming off the floor with a series of pep talks. His efforts to infuse energy into his players soon paid dividends. Under the influence of the confidence injected by their coach, the Palo Alto team began to fight back and believe they stood a chance to win.
"It was just telling them that 'you got to forget about it and go play your game,'" said Atwater.
By harnessing the power of a rekindled competitive spirit, the Palo Alto players fought back to overcome the early deficit and went on to win by the narrowest of margins, only two points.
"It was a great game. The girls I felt played their hearts out," said Missan.
And still, the biggest thrill of the day was yet to be had.
That was reserved for during the award ceremony at the tournament's close, in front of a crowd of players, family members and friends, when league officials awarded the team from Palo Alto the winner of the second place medals. The announcement came as a surprise to those who had seen the championship game, and knew its outcome, but weren't aware of forfeit.
The Sequoia players were as shocked as anyone to find they had won the tournament, despite losing the championship game.
And that's when Missan gathered his team and informed them they were being awarded the championship due to violation of a technicality. But then, rather than heed the temptation to bask in the glory of a tournament championship victory over a rival, he seized the opportunity and transformed it into a lesson about the power of good sportsmanship.
He suggested that his players, after receiving their first place trophy, offer it to the Palo Alto team in recognition of their championship game victory.
The girls unanimously and immediately agreed to their coach's plan. So while Missan briefly addressed the crowd in attendance, his players approached their rivals and willingly handed over the honor of winning the tournament championship.
And the surprised players from Palo Alto, who had previously resigned themselves to accepting second place, graciously accepted the offer to be awarded first place.
"It was a simple little gesture, but it was also a huge one," said Atwater. "It made everyone look at what those kids did and realize that maybe the game wasn't that important."
The most important outcome of the game was not which team won, or who took home the championship title, according to Missan's daughter Talia, who played on the Sequoia team.
"It felt great to give them the trophy. You could see it in look on their faces. They gave us hugs. And we weren't too upset because we knew we had done the right thing by giving them the trophy. They won the game," said Talia.
And heading into the tournament in Los Angeles this weekend, there is still an opportunity for the teams to square off again. But this time, it will be different. Not only because there will more glory at stake, but because of how the prior experience changed all those involved.
"It felt like we developed a friendship with them," said Talia.