Out of the office: The bigger the moment, the bigger the reaction

There’s something about big moments and important games that I just can’t get enough of. As a sportswriter, it’s naturally in my DNA to salivate over the thought of a pound-for-pound matchup between two teams with everything to play for.

One team the attacker, the other the defender. Or maybe it’s the classic tale of an immovable object against an irresistible force. One team known for shredding defenses, now faced with trying to solve an opponent with a lockdown defense. Juicy matchups that test a strength or weakness of both sides.

As a sports reporter on the Kenai Peninsula for going on eight years now, I’ve seen my share of big moments. From Allie Ostrander racing against history, to the Soldotna football team trying to break history.

That’s not to say it’s all glorious. There are certainly times when the harsh realities of the job set in. Standing in a cold spring shower for nearly four hours watching high school soccer isn’t my idea of a fun time (although I hear it builds character). Doing so for a regular season game in April with the region and state championships still weeks away doesn’t seem all that important.

But when there’s a championship on the line, my attention is pegged. There’s just something about seeing countless hours of practice and gym time pay off with the championship prize.

Last Saturday, watching not one, but two peninsula teams duke it out for a Class 3A state volleyball championship, which pitted Homer and Kenai Central, a rematch of the region final one week earlier.

For a reporter, it didn’t get any better, because I was guaranteed at least one victorious interview — although, frankly, I don’t look forward to having to catch the coach of the losing team, fresh out of the locker room, to ask about losing the big game.

When the Mariners reached match point, there was a palpable tension in the air as one side of the vast arena held their collective breaths waiting for Homer to score it, while the other side hunkered down and prayed Kenai Central would stave them off one more time.

When the last point was scored, the players clad in navy blue and white let out shrieks of joy, as the Homer Mariners emerged as state champions and the celebration was on, whilst I frantically tried to capture the scene.

Having never experienced the pure joy of celebrating a season’s worth of hard work pay off with a championship victory, it makes sense that my heart gets racing alongside the teams I cover when they finally reach that pinnacle of achievement.

The title also had a feeling of added satisfaction for championship-starved Homer fans, who have seen both their football and hockey teams come oh-so-close to winning state crowns in their respective seasons over the past two years. I was also there when Homer football literally came within a yard of winning the 2017 Division III championship, when no timeouts left Homer out of chances to install another play against Barrow.

I was also there when Homer was cruelly denied the 2019 small-schools state hockey title, when the Mariners conducted a wild rally to take a short-lived lead in the final 90 seconds of the championship game.

The Homer bench, which had erupted into mass delirium just moments earlier, was suddenly silenced as their foes Palmer tied it up with 34 seconds left. Palmer ultimately won in in overtime, and it capped what is probably the largest swing of emotion I’ve seen or felt.

The aforementioned SoHi football team carried a 59-game win streak into the 2018 season opener at home. With the West Eagles bearing down on the end zone with the final seconds ticking off the game clock, I stood on the sidelines of the west end zone, anticipating something big would happen — either West would score and put an end to The Streak, or the Stars would pull off a goal-line stand and miraculously keep it alive.

I watched as an Eagles running back plunged into the end zone at the buzzer, snapping the streak on the spot. The West sideline erupted into a frenzy, while the SoHi stands conveyed an eerie, unfamiliar sense of shock. I tried to capture that moment, take a mental photograph, that few can say they have.

Baseball in particular is a sport that thrives off moments, one single play that can change a program. In a sport that doesn’t use a game clock, teams are required to record 27 outs (or more for extra innings) to win.

Doesn’t matter if the lead is 10 runs or 15 or 20, as long as the opposition can keep putting runners on base and bringing them home before the last out, the result is always in question.

It explains my hushed excitement in watching the 2016 American Legion Twins hang on by the scruffs of their necks for the Alaska state baseball title. The team squandered a late lead before wrestling it back in the bottom of the eighth inning in dramatic fashion.

But unlike a football team that takes a lead and does everything in its power to sit on it and drain the clock, a baseball team must be precise and mistake-free in getting the last three outs. The Twins put the tying run on base that day, and one swing of the bat could’ve lost them the game, but they held on in a gutsy effort, resulting in a chaotic and celebratory scene on field.

Then there are not teams or moments, but individual athletes like Ostrander, whose storied career I had the privilege of covering almost from day one. I retraced my memory to the first time the peninsula phenom left me in a state of shock.

Nikiski High School’s track on a cool, overcast day in April 2013. Ostrander blitzed the field on the cold, hard track in the 3,200 meters, posting an unofficial state record that crushed the previous mark, and it was my honor to inform the public of just why that was a big deal.

Since then, Ostrander has made a habit of surprising us to the point where we expect greatness every time she steps onto a track, cross-country course or the start line for Mt. Marathon Race in Seward. Having been there since before the days she gained national attention has made this mild-mannered reporter proud to follow her remarkable progress to the current day.

Moments like that are what make my job great. I admit I am often a slave to the moment, as it often takes some historical perspective to let a win or accomplishment set in, but there’s nothing stopping me from soaking it all in.

I don’t know when the next big moment will come, but I hope I’m there to enjoy it.

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