The Seward football team did Friday night what the Alaska Schools Activities Association failed to do earlier in the week, and that's make a bold statement about the dignity of a loser.
Tuesday, ASAA voted to reclassify basketball and volleyball. The vote added a Class 5A division to girls and boys basketball and volleyball, and thus gave the state four more state championships to hand out every year.
The rationale? Kids love winning. Communities love winning. Parents love winning. Everybody loves a winner! The more winning, and less losing, the better.
Then along came Seward Friday night.
Nobody gave the Seahawks much chance of winning a small-schools semifinal playoff game against Soldotna, and with good reason.
The Stars were on their home field. The Stars had 24 seniors to Seward's six. The Stars had 12 players over 200 pounds to Seward's five. And the Stars had whipped Seward 48-0 earlier in the season.
The game started and, like the plot to a Meg Ryan movie, things went pretty much as expected. Soldotna picked off Seward's first pass of the game, then dominated the first three quarters with its bigger offensive and defensive lines. On this night, 4 yards on a Soldotna run was as much of a gimme as the permanent fund dividend.
By the end of the third quarter, Soldotna had a 26-0 lead and another 48-0 pasting looked as imminent as an Alaska led by Frank Murkowski. It was dark. It was cold. And Soldotna had proven its superiority in speed, size, depth and skill throughout the contest.
Seward had more reasons to fold tent and high-tail it out of town than any migratory bird still unlucky enough to be in Alaska right now.
But the Seahawks did more than just stick around. The Seahawks dominated the fourth quarter, rolling up 132 yards on offense to Soldotna's 5 yards in outscoring the Stars 13-0.
This last gasp wasn't about winning. There never was a remote threat of Soldotna losing this game in the fourth quarter.
This was about honoring an opponent by continuing to give best effort, even though that best effort would not be enough to win. This was about seniors sucking every last drop out of their careers. This was about playing sheerly for the love of football.
This was about the dignity of losing.
With three seconds left and his team trailing 26-7, Seward senior quarterback Ryan Gardner rolled out to his right and launched a 30-yard prayer to junior receiver Erik Amberg, who snatched the ball out of a crowd and managed to just roll across the goal line.
With no time on the clock and the scoreboard spelling a 26-13 defeat, senior teammate Jonah Swiderski rushed to the fallen receiver and swooped him up in jubilation.
After the handshake, Soldotna paced off to the locker room as a solitary unit, while Seward returned to its sideline to coalesce with a small group of fans full of hugs and congratulations.
Swiderski, who had rolled up 97 yards of total offense in the final quarter, finally let somebody get two solid arms around him -- those of his mother, Susan.
When told that her son -- her son! -- was going to be interviewed for the paper, mom cupped her hands over her mouth in climactic joy and walked off looking a bit stunned, pride and tears welling in her eyes.
Anybody showing up at this better-than-Disney moment would have thought Seward pulled off the upset. Seward didn't get an upset. They got something just as special -- a valuable life lesson.
This isn't the last time these players will have to face down defeat with dignity. Patients won't be able to be saved. Kids will refuse to be taught. Deadlines on projects will be impossible to make.
In a week when ASAA went out of its way to create more winners, Seward showed there can be just as much value in a loss as in a win.
This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticism can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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