Courier sports writer
Things didn’t start swimmingly for the Ottumwa boys and girls basketball teams this season.
There’s no getting around this stubborn fact. Both teams have a deficit of experienced players and it showed — and sometimes still shows — at times in the form of mistakes that are bound to happen to young teams trying to establish an identity for themselves.
In their first few games, both teams struggled mightily to take care of the ball, turning it over 20 or more times. When faced with intense defensive pressure, many of the Bulldogs wore that deer-in-the headlights expression that is the bane of any coaches existence.
But, and this is a big but, both Bulldogs teams have gotten better — a lot better. And their records — and this is especially true for the boys’ team — don’t accurately communicate how much these two teams have grown this season. Coaches Chris Gravett and Kevin Patterson and their players deserve a lot of credit for having the work ethic and resiliency to push on after being on the wrong side of some lopsided defeats.
In America, we have a tendency to measure everything in terms of winning or losing, or success or failure. The barometer for measuring whether a person is successful is often based on accumulation of wealth, number of trophies or some other status symbol that marks someone as a winner. This amoral way of thinking disguises the many important lessons that can be gleaned from the lifelong struggle to match aspirations with achievements.
Sports, at its core, can be an excellent teacher of important lessons that can’t be measured in dollar bills. It teaches things like the importance of teamwork, perseverance, friendship, learning how to deal with failure, overcoming fear and understanding that success is only worthwhile, if it’s earned in an honorable fashion. Of course, sports, like pretty much everything else in life, also can bring out some of our most malicious emotions such as tribalism, unconditional conformity and measuring one’s worth based on physical or athletic superiority. Thankfully, the lessons that Ottumwa’s basketball players are learning from their coaches are the right ones and should be given more attention, even if they can’t be discerned by looking at a scorebook.
Ironically, the girls started to turn their season around during a 81-27 blowout loss at seventh ranked Southeast Polk (4A). Patterson saw some promising developments, namely his team taking a more aggressive approach on both ends of the court.
“I feel like we were trying to penetrate gaps and attack on offense, while on defense, we played much better in the second half,” Patterson said after the game.
While those improvements might have been hard to discern from the rest of the action taking place at the Southeast Polk game, they were on full display during Ottumwa’s 45-39 win over Des Moines Lincoln. With every made basket, you could see the girls slowly gain confidence as they aggressively sought after that first victory.
The Bulldogs miraculous 32-31 overtime comeback victory over Fort Madison further illuminated how much this team has improved. It’s hard to overstate how clutch Olivia Roark’s two 3-pointers, one which tied the game at 30, were.
Although the girls suffered a tough loss to Des Moines Hoover Tuesday, it’s highly unlikely that they will revert back to where they were at the start of the season. Even in defeat, Ottumwa still played well in certain aspects of the game, most notably the excellent defensive play of Alexis Winn and Rachel Zingg, who shut down the the Huskies’ leading scorer Nyakat Diew, who averaged almost 10 points per game going into the game, but only managed to score a few points against Ottumwa.
Although the boys didn’t pick up a win, they showed a lot of grit and heart in their 49-35 loss to Des Moines Hoover at Evans Middle School Tuesday. Ottumwa played what was probably their best half of the season in the second half against Hoover. The boys played with an increased level of tenacity and intelligence, mixing tough defense and offensive efficiency. Carter Burns, who has played superbly all season, had another great game, finishing with a team-high 16 points and Andrew Altfillisch continued to show flashes of how great he will eventually become. Charlie Altfillisch also provided a spark for Ottumwa with six points, including a mid-range jumper he drilled in the final seconds of the second half. But most importantly everyone, from Burns to the last guy on the bench competed hard.
Not every team is going to have a sterling record, but Ottumwa’s basketball teams are succeeding in ways that aren’t measured in victories or glossy statistics.