The true meaning of friendly competition

In the words of Henry Grantland Rice, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

The early 20th century sportswriter knew a lot about sportsmanship. Born in 1880 in Tennessee, he wrote about sports for southern newspapers and traveled the region working as a referee and umpire in football and baseball. His syndicated column, “The Spotlight,” was very influential in its day and, according to Britannica.com, it is estimated he wrote more than 22,000 columns and 67 million words about sports. I’d say that makes him an authority on the subject.

I also think the conduct of the St. Clairsville and Union Local soccer teams last week would have impressed him and won his approval.

On Aug. 16, we reported that the Union Local Athletic Board had voted unanimously to downgrade its high school soccer program to club status. The co-ed team is in its fifth year in the district, and it had been playing on an Ohio High School Athletic Association boys’ soccer schedule. This year, however, the team does not have enough players on its roster.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” Athletic Director Nick Nardo told our reporter. “We’ve had good numbers every year we’ve had the program. We started with 16 kids this season, but for various reasons, they just started to trickle off.”

It turns out, though, that the team’s first game of the season was something special. UL and St. Clairsville had agreed to play an 8-8 matchup, since that was the number of players the Jets could field. But it also meant each UL team member would have to play the entire game.

What happened instead was an outstanding lesson in good sportsmanship.

“UL played their first soccer game of the season tonight. We lost 7-1 against St. Clairsville, but that’s not the important part,” a UL teacher, Sheri Morris McElroy, wrote on Facebook after the contest. “We only have 8 kids (co-ed) on the team this year. EIGHT. For those of you who don’t know, there should be 11 players on the field, which means not only are we short handed, but these kids have to play for 80 minutes without anyone to sub in and out for a breather.

“St. C. agreed to play 8 on 8 (which they didn’t have to) AND they played their JV kids,” she continued. “As the game progressed, they loaned us players (I think they had about 25 boys) which allowed our kids to get a drink and take a short rest. This is one of our biggest rivals I’m talking about here. This was sportsmanship at its finest. Good on you, St. C. Coach. You taught your boys a lesson tonight far more important than scoring goals.”

McElroy’s post drew quite a response, as it should. Many parents, sports fans, educators and community members commended all involved, both the students and the adults.

Kim T. Jordan of St. Clairsville wrote, “I love to hear this. You’re right. So many life lessons learned! Congrats to both teams!”

Donna Stonebraker-Grant, a Centerville resident and Union Local graduate, added, “This makes my heart smile.”

A former soccer coach, Chrissy Stephens, was disheartened to hear about the small size of the Jets’ team, but she approved of the Red Devils’ reaction.

“I am sad to hear that you only have eight players this year. As a former soccer coach for (East Richland Christian Schools), I know the struggle,” the St. C alum wrote. “Hugs and prayers that more step up and join the team! As an Aunt of two of the St C players and a friend of the Assistant Coach, I am proud to hear of what they did. Thank you for sharing.”

Jeanette Lucas of Bethesda enjoyed the experience.

“It was a great game!” she commented. “Thank you St C for loaning the extra kids. Great sportsmanship. Thank you to the bus driver and coach … Kudos to our coach and team for holding it together.”

Parent Brooke Grimes was happy for her child to have the chance to participate.

“Being a mom of one of the St. C boys, I think they were all just happy to play!” she noted. “I wish UL the best of luck and hope some more kids step up to play!”

In my opinion, all of these comments are spot on. Despite the fact that the UL team will not be eligible to play in the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference tournament this year and will only play 10-11 games, it is still a great opportunity for the kids who do participate to be active, to hone their skills and to learn important life lessons about things like perseverance, cooperation, teamwork and sportsmanship.

Such lessons began early on for this group of Jets, thanks to the generosity of a local couple. When the program got its start, home games were played at the Belco Works field on Hammond Road, St. Clairsville. But in 2016, Union Local dedicated its own home field adjacent to the school complex on Belmont-Morristown Road.

Andy and Dana Mistak and family played a big role in the construction of the new field, and they privately funded the program for its first three years (2016-18). That was a great example to set for the players, and their support likely made the entire endeavor possible.

So, kudos to the Mistaks as well as to all the current UL players and staff who are hanging on to their team in spite of the odds. And congratulations to the St. Clairsville team and its coaches for making it possible for the Jets to have a great start to the season, despite the team’s small numbers.

Great job, everyone! This is what friendly competition is all about!