Casey Stangel: Learning from our loss

Casey Stangel is a junior pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. Her high school team won the Class 5A state softball championship last season and she has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Going into the seventh inning we were down 5-2, and we had one batting opportunity to win the game. Could we do it? Of course. Our high school team had the most dangerous hitting lineup in the state, and we could hit any pitcher in the tournament. On May 19, things changed and we didn’t score those four needed runs, and we lost the state championship game to our cross-town rival high school.

“Everything happens for a reason” is the quote that everyone turns to when situations are not what they had expected. I believe that holds true, especially in sports; that every game was given to you for a reason. Every game in our careers was given to us so that we can learn something. After each one, I sit and process it and take lessons away from it. Some games have more information to offer than others, but every one is just as important as the other. This season I had the opportunity to play a game that I will remember for the rest of my life, and it has taught me huge lessons that are very important to me in my softball career.

In the moment, it was a killer. You have to win and lose like a champion, so I congratulated our rivals and let them have their moment, because everyone deserves to have that moment.

My next job was to be strong for my team because losing the championship game is never easy -- losing to your rival takes your breath away. The one thing I reminded my girls in our postgame huddle was lesson No. 1 for me: Don’t dwell on one game, because one game does not define a player, a team, or a season. We had two losses the entire season, and broke almost every offensive record at our school. Statistically, we had one of the best seasons in our school’s history, but there we were, girls in tears. In the moment of our big loss, it was very understandable and normal to be upset. But it was important to remember all the great things over the course of our season, and not the one bad thing in that moment. We had to realize that we had a better season than most teams, but the last game didn’t go our way, and sometimes that happens.

The whole bus ride home was when I really got to reflect by myself about the game on a more personal level. What can I take away from this experience? The lesson was not that I didn’t swing the bat well, or that I didn’t play solid defense, or that I didn’t have heart. It is easy to point fingers at specific plays or simply to say “they were just better today,” but I didn’t believe that what I didn’t do was the lesson to learn.

The second lesson that I took was this: Great players and leaders win and lose the big games; but the point is that they keep bringing their teams back. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest quarterback in football, and he has won one Super Bowl. LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of our time, and he has never won an NBA championship. The thing that great leaders do is they keep leading their teams back to those games, and eventually it will be their year. The best players in the world can’t win every time, but the next day they put it away and start working hard again so that they can get back to that big game.

The morning after the loss I went out in our backyard and sat down to talk with my dad about the game. Among all the things we sat and talked about that morning, two things stuck with me. Initially he told me my third lesson: The sport is not fair. I don’t know why, but it’s not. You can work harder than anybody else, care about the game more than anybody else, and sacrifice things that others don’t sacrifice to win a game, and then still lose. The sport is never fair, it doesn’t know the work you do when everybody else goes home and all the love you have for it. Some days the softball gods are with you, but sometimes they are not, and you have to learn to accept it. I don’t play the game just to say I won a championship, I play because it is what I love to do. So even though that result wasn’t necessarily fair or the way I wanted it to be, I keep playing with nothing but love for it.

The last thing we talked about was what I needed to hear more than everything else. He told me simply this, “All right, Case, now quit your whining because today is the first day of next season, and it’s time to get workin’. ’ ” Which is exactly what I did, because May 20 was the first day of my senior season, and I am working my butt off every day to lead my team back to that game, and end my high school career with a win.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog – on her sources for motivation – here.