I just had to reach out to Wildwood High School boys basketball coach Scott McCracken on Thursday morning.
I had a simple question: How are you doing?
The Wildwood boys played in their first South Jersey final since 1980 on Tuesday afternoon. The Warriors led Clayton 59-52 with 2 minutes, 35 seconds left in the game. Clayton rallied and won the S.J. Group I title game 64-63.
“I felt all day (Wednesday) like I had a stomach ache,” McCracken said. “I got to be honest. It still hurts.”
He wasn’t the only coach to watch a lead slip away this week.
The same day Wildwood lost, Camden and its coach Vic Carstarphen led Haddonfield by 11 with less than two minutes left only to lose in overtime in the S.J. Group II title game.
On Wednesday, coach Dave DeWeese of Wildwood Catholic saw a four-point, fourth-quarter lead disappear in an overtime loss to national power Ranney in the Non-Public B sectional title game.
There’s no other sport where last-minute leads consistently disappear like they do in basketball. It’s the nature of the game’s quick pace.
It’s especially painful when it happens in the state tournament where a loss ends the season and a team’s championship dreams.
When a blown lead happens to coaches — and it happens to almost all who coach in enough big games — it makes their guts ache.
“It’s like a light switch,” McCracken said. “During the game you’re playing, and the next thing you’re losing, the switch is off.”
Afterwards, the coach with the color drained from their face tries to console crying players in the locker room. Moments later, the coach speaks with reporters who want to know what went wrong.
At that point, nobody — not the coach’s friends, spouse or relatives — understands what the coach is feeling.
“I don’t think everyone understands the time or effort you put into it,” McCracken said. “Or how you feel about the town, the community and obviously your team. It’s difficult.”
A few hours after Wildwood’s loss, McCracken got out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to watch film of the game’s final five minutes.
“It wasn’t going to get any better,” McCracken said. “It wasn’t going to change anything. But I wanted to see what really happened.”
What makes the state tournament loss so difficult to take is that there is no practice the next day or future game to prepare for.
Since Thanksgiving, these teams have been playing and practicing nearly every day. They’ve been with each other almost as much as their families and now that’s over.
On Wednesday, McCracken took his daughters to the Wildwood gym to shoot around. The lights were out, and the baskets were up.
“That means,” McCracken said, “nobody was home any more for basketball. It’s a strange feeling, and that’s how it ends.”
Coaches experience a roller coaster of emotions at tournament time.
McCracken said the day of the game he was too nervous to eat. The day after, he was too upset for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Eventually, these coaches will be able to appreciate what they and their teams achieved. But now, it’s just too soon.
So if you see McCracken, DeWeese or Carstarphen in the next few days, pat them on back, appreciate their job well done and give them the space to let time heal their wounds.
And in McCracken’s case, also buy him a slice of pizza.
It’s about time he ate.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.