Column: The postgame blues

Rye Neck quarterback Thomas Pipolo, left, stands with his teammates after their Dec. 1 loss in the state championship game. Pipolo and his teammates handled the heartbreaking loss with grace and class.  Photo/Mike Smith

Rye Neck quarterback Thomas Pipolo, left, stands with his teammates after their Dec. 1 loss in the state championship game. Pipolo and his teammates handled the heartbreaking loss with grace and class.
Photo/Mike Smith

A few years back, when I was still a relatively green reporter, I was covering a boxing card at the Rye Town Hilton. A relatively unskilled fighter from the area, whose name escapes me now, took a beating in one of the undercard bouts. In an effort to inject some local flavor into the piece, I followed the man back to the makeshift dressing room, peppering him with questions about the fight. He was more than happy to take me through the X’s and O’s, the lefts and rights that he should have seen. But when I asked one seemingly innocuous question, the entire tenor of the conversation changed.

I asked him what lay ahead in terms of his boxing career.

His lips trembled, his eyes welled up and I realized in that instant that I hadn’t just witnessed a fighter getting beat in the ring—but we had seen the death of a dream, no matter how farfetched it was.

“That’s it,” he replied. “It’s over. I’m done.”

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that one of the most difficult parts about my job is the postgame interview when the outcome isn’t in our hometown team’s favor. When you factor in the emotional nature of sports, the agony of defeat and the fact that many of my subjects—despite their physical prowess are, at the end of the day, still high school students—sometimes the post-loss media session can be a dicey proposal.

I was reminded of this on Dec. 1, when the Rye Neck Panthers fell in the state championships to Chenago Forks by a score of 28-27. In terms of emotional games, I haven’t seen many comparable to this one; a state title and undefeated season on the line, a special group of senior players who had been through hell together, a punishing, physical opponent in Chenago and a decidedly one-sided officiating crew.

Even if Panther coach Nick Ianello was far too classy to take my bait after the game, I will say it; Rye Neck got a raw deal from the referees.

How could a 16 or 17 year old possibly be asked to process this moment, then stand there and talk to a dopey sports reporter after a game when all he wants to do is get back to the locker room and be with his teammates one last time.

When I was in high school, I have to admit that I was a pretty good interview. After a win I had a knack for giving our local reporters good quotes—generally self-deprecating in nature—and never forgot to thank my catcher, even though we were rarely on the same page. After a loss? Forget it. I could be a terror; curt, rude and dismissive. In times like that, I would undoubtedly need a teammate to step in and take over for me lest I say something I might regret.

As part of my beat, I’ve even seen our staff photographer, Bobby Begun, threatened a few years back by a couple of football players who, after a bad loss, didn’t want a camera in their face.

With that in mind, on Sunday, I gazed over at the Black Hats lined up for the postgame ceremony. There were a lot of bowed heads, and not so many dry eyes. I can guarantee you there wasn’t one guy on that team who wanted to stand there and be interviewed. But inevitably, the Rye Neck leaders once again stepped up for their teammates.

There was quarterback Tom Pipolo—whose arm kept the Panthers in the game—vehemently defending the team’s decision to go for two and the win. There was Jakob Calvini telling reporters one last time about the special bond that this team shared. The season might be technically over, but their job as the leaders of the team wasn’t over, not just yet.

It’s moments like these where sports can be such good preparation for real life. There will be countless disappointments and struggles, and handling adversity with grace is a skill one will undoubtedly need in the future. On Sunday, Rye Neck’s players handled that loss with about as much class as you can ask for.

I’m just glad I didn’t have to interview a 16-year-old version of myself. I doubt things would have gone as smoothly.

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.