Written by Brad Peters
Photo by Jesse Gardner

When Retye Rash threw his chest across the finish line of Buchanan High School’s track in the 100th running of the California State Championship in Track and Field last weekend, he literally was the last athlete at King High to finish competing this year.  The girls softball team wrapped their CIF Runners-up campaign about six hours earlier in Irvine.

From August to June, 1,268 athletes competed in a King uniform; pushing themselves in hundreds of matches, races and games. There were 8 League Championships earned and numerous individual crowns bestowed. Wins were had and of course there were losses.  Such has been the narrative every season of King High’s history, which now spans 19 years.

Rash’s path to CIF Sectional and Masters titles was littered with hurdles.  That’s the nature of his event: Run as fast as you can with obstacles in your way.  In the 300 meter race, eight flights of hurdles stand like sentries in his way. Can’t go around them, can’t go under them. “Over” is the only way, and as any hurdler will tell you, clip one of them a little too hard on the way over and, well, your race is over.  

When Adrian Salgado and Marissa Ritchie earned their CIF titles in March, to win, they had to make moves on the mat that their opponents were likely well prepared to counter.  One does not wrestle alone.

When swimmers for Coach Clendenen suit up for their competition, they squeeze into hi-tech suits that are designed to cut down on one of the great unseen opponents of swimmers, fluid friction.  Eliminate that submarine tension and the swimmer gets from wall to wall just a little more quickly. Swimmers will pay a good sum to subdue their liquid adversary.

Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “that it doesn’t matter what you do when things are going well, it’s what you do when it hits the fan.”  OK, so maybe that wasn’t exactly how he said it, but you get the gist.

Adversity is the adversary.  It works hard, drips with sweat and takes no time outs. Sometimes it doesn’t play by the rules; it blindsides … it comes out of left field. Like a sucker punch it drops us to our knees and leaves us wondering, “What just hit me?”

The dean of the coaching staff at King is John Corona who is in his 40th year in the business.  Reyte Rash’s success notwithstanding, Corona’s track team faced the challenge of being young and inexperienced.  The enemy, it seemed, lay just inside young bones and bodies draped with a King uniform.

Corona’s been around the block more than a few times in his long tenure at King and earlier, at Arlington. Let’s just say he’s seen it all.  Of this year’s young squad (both the boys and girls battled to second place in the league) he said, “they didn’t know how to behave, how to carry themselves.  They were little kids in a big kid’s world, especially in the Big 8.”

One only needs to watch a track meet against the league champion Mustangs of Roosevelt to know of what he speaks.  Roosevelt’s program runs with a subtle sway of swagger. It exudes confidence and a tenacity to win that exposes any flaw an opponent may have. Even if that flaw is the mistake of being young.  King lost to Roosevelt by large margins and never even got close enough to sniff at a win.

“As a coach, this calls for a lot of teaching and a lot of patience” Corona said, “and things may not go your way for awhile until the kids understand.  Basically, for a good period of time with a young and inexperienced group, they are battling themselves as well as their opponent.”

His words put a new spin on the old cliche, “We’ve met the enemy and they are us.”

When the word “apocalypse” comes to mind, we think of Marvel comic villains, zombies, or asteroids hurtling toward earth.  Or maybe its four dudes on horseback. Whatever, take your pick, any way you slice it, it’s ugly. The world is ending!

Sports can be apocalyptic at times too,  though it’s not just reserved for that feeling you get after losing Game 7.  Rather, in this context one might consider the meaning of the word in its original Greek definition:   An unveiling, an uncovering of what was once hidden.

In that sense then, adversity isn’t the end of the world.  Adversity is apocalyptic.

King’s head football coach, Pat McCarthy, in just his first season at the helm of the football program was dealt a blind side last August.  The long time coach at various schools was four days away from his players putting on the pads, when his heart practically gave out.

“I was working out in the gym and just didn’t feel right ….my heart rate was way up, like 180.”

It wasn’t a heart attack like the one that almost killed him back in 2010.  Instead, a coronary artery stent had shifted from where it had been placed and his doctors warned, “take care of this now or you’ll be dead by Christmas.”   

On the eve of his tenure, the veteran coach was sent to the bleachers. Watching became the game plan. “It was 12 weeks before I could even sleep normally.  It was really hard because I didn’t want to let the kids down.”

“Let down” could well have been the story line of the girls’ soccer season. Abby Najera, a Junior on the team, was one of many this past Winter who found their preseason  “Plan A” going decidedly off course.  It was so tough at one point it would have been a stretch to call what was happening by mid-season as even “Plan B”.

“Surprising!” she says of what transpired as the losses stacked up, an interim coach was hired and conflict tattooed itself into the season’s skin.  “We had a talented group of older and younger girls, we were excited to play together, but it just didn’t work out” she said of their season that ended with only one win in the league and three on the year. 

But the dark clouds that seemed to sit over their season actually had an outcome for Abby that may well have been just as surprising as the initial adversity did.  

“Overcoming all of it actually brought us together” she said with a half smile curling up from the corner of her mouth. “I was able to experience something hard, emotional, and I got through it.  In the end, a lot of girls felt better emotionally and were happy to be out there playing with each other.” Look into the dark pupils of Abby Najera and you’ll see the glitter of something best seen on a black backdrop: Hope.  

Today, McCarthy has that same feeling after enduring the nightmare of 2017.  “Adversity, I tell you, it reveals who you really are” he said, “both the good and the bad.”

“When I went out, we had only three guys that had played a varsity game in 2016, but we had some kids really step up in leadership.  Rich Martinez, [the interim head coach] was amazing.  He really shined.”

Pat laughed. “I joke with Rich now, tellin’ him, ‘look what I went through to make you a head coach.’”  But then he got serious, “Rich is really a quality individual and this gave him a chance to shine, and he did.”

Watch the eyes of Coach Sondra Lough when she talks and you’ll see them light up, shiny.  Her love for her players is evident in her eyes. She’s tough and demanding – which is a form of love in it’s own right – but the affection she has for her players is in those eyes.  And the smile that follows.

She and the boys she coached in volleyball this Spring had a rough road from start to finish.  Their record is not the sort that causes anyone to bust out grinning.

Lough reflected,  “Every year, in preparation for the season, it is my belief that they will compete for a league title, and not only make it into the CIF playoffs, but also have a run through CIF.  My goals this season were no different” she said of the season that ended on the last league game.

“It was tough dealing with the reality that we did not meet those goals.”

Her inflection changes though as she looks that disappointment square in the face.  “You know, when we fall short in life, whether it’s in the classroom, at work, in competition, or in our relationships, the truest parts of who we are quickly become evident.”  

“The fight, character and determination that this set of young men showed this season was impactful and a testament to who they are.” 

For there to be a resurrection, one first has to fall.

There’s an old adage describing one’s character as “who – or what – you are when no one is watching.” Maybe that’s true, maybe there in the silence and solitude the true self comes out.  Maybe the apocalypse is best seen in the middle of the darkened grind. Or from a hospital bed. The shadow proves the sunshine.

Was Martin Luther King right?  That conflict and controversy unmask us?  Are successful athletes the ones who implicitly understand this and therefore welcome the challenges knowing full well what they’ll bring?

King called it “redemptive suffering.”  Clearly, the context into which he spoke was much more grave than playing high school games, after all, lives were on the line.  Strongly he stated it in his most famous oration delivered in 1963. “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution … You have been the veterans of creative suffering.  Continue to work the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”  

That faith of which he speaks? Yea, more, please.  Because the redemptive part of adversity – especially the kind that comes hidden inside a Trojan Horse – takes a truck-load of faith to believe in.

But if this year of athletics says anything, it says this: If you play enough games, run enough races, you’ll come to see that adversity in sport is the price paid not to get into the game, but to get something out of it.   

One wonders, what did the King kids get out of this year?  What trophies — both the ones that go in cabinets and the ones that stay tucked away in the recesses of their souls — did this year’s athletes earn?

Rash, Salgado, Ritchie, the softball team … they’ll likely display their hardware prominently for family and friends to admire.  But for those whose seasons never quite made it into the spotlight, or where circumstances left them with more bench time than playing time, one can only hope their seasons were gloriously apocalyptic, unveiling a strength of character they may not have seen before.  

The bright rays of triumph shine most brilliantly in the darkest of nights.