Saying goodbye to the game I love

If you’re in college, hopefully you’ve had the experience of graduating high school.

(If you haven’t, you don’t have to turn away, but this next part might not resonate with you.)

Graduation day is packed with emotions – happiness, anxiety and nostalgia come to my mind. It’s the last time you’ll probably see most of your classmates, some of whom might be friends you’ve known since childhood. You’re shedding a chapter of your life you were convinced would never end and facing a future that suddenly seems much scarier. To cap off the craziness, your entire family usually witnesses your ascension into the ranks of adulthood.

For many students, graduation day is tough. For others, it’s a celebration many years in the making.

I fell somewhere in the middle about four years ago. I wasn’t sad to be leaving high school or scared of what lay ahead at Western. I was content. That’s the best way I can describe it. Not joyous. Not depressed. Just content.

That same feeling washed over me the minute I walked into the Perry Fieldhouse on April 10. For those of you in the know, that was the first day of Nationals 2010. After a mid-season vote, BGSU had stepped up to deliver the cherry on top of an incredible season.

But as the league descended on Ohio for their crack at the championship, I was gearing up for my final NCDA event with the men who comprised Western’s team.

It wasn’t graduation day, but my emotions were fully in control as I crossed the track surrounding four shrouded basketball courts early Saturday morning. As I passed, I saw faces familiar from past games and some I knew only from profile pictures. I smiled at everyone. This weekend, I was among 250 of my closest friends.

Our first game was against UWP. At last year’s tournament, we’d played them in the third game on Saturday and gotten beat 7-1. I had been embarassed but knew at the time my young team was running on fumes and UWP seemed to be going strong.

I knew my team had improved significantly since that loss and I planned on proving it at Nationals. I had a plan in place that I thought gave us the best chance to win on Sunday, and the first step was dishing out some revenge against the Pioneers.

With a carefully crafted rotation in place, my guys took the court. Like they always do, everybody played frantically the first half, rushing throws and acting like they’d never heard of teamwork before. We went into halftime down 2-1. My plan was in serious jeopardy, and I yelled at my team to “get their s**t together” for the second half.

Not one of my finest moments, I’ll admit.

But right after my meltdown, I experienced one of my greatest moments as captain with a little help from Andrew Swanson, one of our newer players. As I strolled away from the huddle to collect myself, I heard Andrew encouraging his teammates and telling them keep their heads up lest UWP feed off the negative emotion.

I was taken aback. Here was a guy who’d only joined the team last fall, yet cared so much about his teammates that he countered my frustration with encouragement. In the words of my dad, Andrew’s speech served as my “attitude adjustment” for the weekend.

I sheepishly returned to build off Andrew’s encouragement and get my guys ready for the second half. Whether it was me or Andrew, they were ready to respond to some positive reinforcement.

We ended up winning the game 4-2 with some of the best teamwork I’ve ever seen. Guys were throwing together, blockers were diving in front of their helpless teammates and everyone played their role.

That feeling of pride only swelled during our next game against GVSU. I had only played the defending national champs once, and that was a 16-0 trouncing at my first-ever NCDA tournament. I wasn’t planning on a getting even, and with our defensive game plan, I actually expected the game to be quite painful. I had no idea how my guys would respond to what was essentially catching practice against the league’s hardest-throwing team, but I needed to see if we could stick to our strategy.

I could spend the next 1,000 words breaking down the game, but I’ll just say that I was happier with our 4-0 loss than I’ve been with several victories during my time at WKU.

Every single guy played brilliantly. Some guys had to step into roles they weren’t used to for that game, and their response astounded me. I’ll never forget the sight of J.D. Gilliam, probably our greenest player, racking up 6 kills during the first point of the game.

To put it in perspective, that would be like Dennis Rodman putting up 20 points in the first half of a Bulls game. I was stunned, but the Lakers seemed flabbergasted by our tactics and J.D. just picked them off one by one. Sure, we lost that point and the three that followed, but for a brief moment, a rookie got to step into the spotlight on college dodgeball’s biggest stage.

The weekend was filled with plenty of other awe-inspiring moments for me.

After finishing up the first day games, I attended my final captains’ meeting. I hyped on my blog that this meeting would be a Team Jacob vs. Team Locke showdown between myself and Jack Attack. While we did disagree on certain issues, I was frightened later that night at how much Jack and I saw eye-to-eye on. As I told him via text, I didn’t like that he was pulling me over to the dark side.

Following the meeting, I got to indulge in one of my favorite rituals: eating at Ruby Tuesday’s. Driving 30 minutes and getting sidetracked by a dumbfounded GPS didn’t matter once I sank my teeth into a Tripe Prime burger. Felix Perrone and Alex Heichelbech (my two alternate captains) will attest to the amazingness of that burger.

I finally fell asleep on the hotel bed around 2:30 that night. Our two late arrivals knocked on our door at approximately 2:31. I’m convinced they waited outside until they knew were asleep so they could wake us. Needless to say, I let Felix handle their arrival while I worked on falling back asleep.

Ahhh, the perks of being a captain.

The next morning, my guys showed up sore. Since our best player decided about 12 hours earlier he couldn’t make it for Sunday’s games, I knew our goose was pretty much cooked. I wouldn’t be winning a championship in my final season, but I did want to go down swinging.

We did just that in our final two games. Against DePaul, we caught the court jesters off guard with some antics of our own. Just check out the pictures from Nationals for a glimpse at raccoon boy and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With the goofy karma on our side, we made it 2-for-2 against the Blue Demons by beating them 4-0.

Kyle Dahl provided some fireworks when the Sasquatch of college dodgeball tried to punk Jared McKinney, one of our newer players. I won’t comment any more than to say I’ve never been happier for Kyle to get a red card.

My final game against CMU ended up a left-handed throwing point. How appropriate. Amidst all the testerone and machoism, my dodgeball career ended with a reminder that we’re still playing a children’s game.

I left Ohio without a trace of sadness in my heart. My dodgeball career played out better than I could have imagined. The friendships I helped forge during my three years as Western’s captain are a high point in not only my college career, but in my entire life. I could never express my gratitude to the people who helped make it all possible.

Like Michael Jordan, I’m stepping away from the game I love in the prime of my career. But not to worry, because much like MJ, I won’t be gone long. In fact, the next time you see me, you probably won’t even have realized that I was gone.

What do I mean, you ask?

Four words: Western. Kentucky. Nationals. 2011.

See you there!

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