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Living With Losing

What Makes Players Keep Giving Their All When Their Teams Have Long Histories Of Futility, With No Relief In Sight?

April 14, 1998|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Justin Harper walked off the tennis court about two-thirds of the way through the 1997 season. His record, after losing three sets, fell to 1-32. He looked at his coach, Jeff Snyder.

"I just can't take it anymore," Harper said.

"I don't blame you," Snyder responded.

Harper quit on the spot--only to return this year as co-captain at La Habra.

Estancia sophomore right fielder Debra Wyman is constantly apologizing for her play on the softball field. There's no reason to apologize, her coach says, because Wyman "always gives 110%." Wyman lacks faith in herself, so much so that the coach bought Wyman a book, "The Little Engine That Could."

Every time Wyman says "I can't," Coach Sharon Uhl answers with a variation from the book's theme: "I know you can, I know you can."

What makes kids come back for more?

It's easy to play, to practice hard every day, when winning is commonplace. If a team wins only six times, it's still enough to provide some hope that it will win one out of every four games or so.

But when a program hasn't won six games in two years?

"We're going to teach a lot of life lessons," Uhl said, "and if we win a game, that's good."

For every winner, there's a loser. And face it, it's tougher to get through a losing season. However, there are still kids such as Tiffany Ortega, who come out for what might be endless disappointment because they say they enjoy their sport.

Jeff Janssen, a mental training consultant at the University of Arizona, said playing through a losing season has long-term benefits.

"Sport teaches that life isn't always going to be fair, and if they can keep working hard through the adversity of a tough season, it's going to help them in the game of life," Janssen said. "I don't know if they know that at the time. It's probably afterward, when they look back on it, that it's going to sink in."

Ortega, a junior middle infielder for Estancia's softball team, says flatly, "Winning is not important. If it was important, I wouldn't be around.

"It's nice. I love the feeling and being able to tell people we won. But if winning was such a priority, I wouldn't have stayed here for three years."

From 1995 to 1997, Estancia was 9-47. The Eagles were 3-16 last season, 2-15 the season before that.

There are other sports programs that are almost as bad, or worse.

But Corona del Mar's decision to not have a varsity softball team surprised many. Only a handful of girls tried out. When two returning players didn't come out, things worsened.

"I was shocked," said junior Jacque Marston, who would have pitched for Corona del Mar this season. She tried to recruit players. "I didn't think it would really happen. I heard if we didn't get people out there, it would fold, but I didn't think it would happen until it happened.

"I'm mad about it."

Modest Goals

Freshman pitcher Joanna Danner knew Estancia's awful track record. She considered attending Fountain Valley, though her older sister, Stephanie, played for Estancia. Joanna just couldn't do it.

"I was thinking about going to Fountain Valley because the competition would be greater and my team would be made up of better players," Danner said. "[The quality of the program] meant a lot to me, but I like Estancia. I know a lot of people. I've gone to school with them since kindergarten.

"Softball is important, but I also want to think about my friends."

She also admits to being frustrated, such as the day she pitched a no-hitter but lost because the Eagles made nine errors.

That wasn't the case when Estancia defeated its rival, Costa Mesa, on Thursday and improved to 3-4 overall, 1-1 in the Pacific Coast League. "If we don't make errors," Danner said, "we're OK."

Snyder, the boys' tennis coach at La Habra, began this season with modest goals because his team had lost 59 of its last 61 matches. He wanted to have a junior varsity team, to win at least one match, "and put together something the kids would come back for the next year."

"I think we've accomplished that," said Snyder, whose team is 3-7 overall, 0-3 in the Freeway League. It ended a 30-match losing streak in its season opener by defeating Whittier Christian on games, 73-71.

One of those who came back was junior Steve Beerfeldt, who didn't play as a freshman because he didn't think he could make the varsity. As a sophomore last season, he was the No. 1 singles player.

"I think everyone feels overwhelmed at times," Beerfeldt said. "I've never thought of winning as a first priority. I focus more on how I played. There will always be someone there who will be better than you are.

"When you enjoy something so much, there's not much frustration in it."

The frustration became too much last year for Beerfeldt's teammate, Harper.

"I didn't think we'd be a winning program, but I didn't expect us to not put up a fight in any match we played," he said.

"I always play to win, and I couldn't deal with it. [But] I felt like a quitter. That's not like me."

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