INDIANAPOLIS — If you’ve ever watched a shocking upset unfold in real time, you remember how it felt. That slow, gradual progression from “Wow, this is a bit more interesting than I expected” to “Holy crap, this is actually going to happen.”
We’ve all lived through at least a couple of them. If you weren’t around for Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson in 1990, you can probably at least remember 16th-seeded UMBC’s epic takedown of top-seeded Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
As those events are happening, you can feel the momentum building toward an alternate reality that doesn’t make any sense inside of your rational mind.
Most of our brains are wired to process the expected, the conventional wisdom. We’re not equipped to deal with outcomes that seemed unrealistic to all but the most dedicated fans of the underdog.
Which is why, hours after it’s over, I’m still trying to make heads or tails of Center Grove’s Houdini-like escape from a Class 6A state championship game that, for much of Saturday night, had been following the Buster Douglas playbook step by step.
See, the Trojans had been every bit as dominant over the last two seasons as Tyson had been through the first four-plus years of his pro boxing career, when he went 37-0 with 33 knockouts — an amazing 22 of those coming in the first or second round. Center Grove had won all of its games this season, and 26 of their last 27, by double digits before Saturday. Many of those had gone to a running clock in the second half after the Trojans had built a 35-point lead. They were the prime Mike Tyson of Indiana high school football.
Pitted up against the same Westfield team that had gotten overwhelmed in last year’s title tilt, most (myself included) expected the Trojans to win as comfortably as they had in most of those previous 27 outings. In previewing the game for last Saturday’s paper, I had written that “it feels cliché to call this game a coronation, but it also feels dishonest to call it anything else.” Most Tyson-Douglas prognosticators had likely said or written something similar.
And yet there we were, well past 10 on Saturday night, in the final throes of Monumental Upset Syndrome.
Oh my goodness …Westfield is actually about to win this game, isn’t it?
It sure looked that way for a hot second. But, as Center Grove coach Eric Moore stated afterward, champions die hard.
The 2014 New England Patriots sure seemed doomed when the Seattle Seahawks had the ball at the 1-yard line in the final minute of that season’s Super Bowl. But then Malcolm Butler came up with a miraculous goal-line interception, and the team that Colts fans loved to hate lived to get fitted for yet another ring.
Against Westfield, Center Grove got a similar 11th-hour miracle from sophomore running back-turned-linebacker Owen Bright, who picked off a Maximus Webster pass at the Trojans’ 3-yard line with 1:37 remaining in the game to snuff out what had felt like an inevitable go-ahead scoring drive.
“It just shows you that every player on this defense has an impact, and that every coverage, every play can make a difference,” Center Grove senior Caden Curry said. “(Bright) came up big.”
I grew up rooting for just about every long-shot there was, and that spirit has never left me. Even as an elementary schooler in the early 1980s, I was loathed in Loge 16 at the old Boston Garden because I’d be vocally rooting for (insert hapless road team here) to knock off the mighty Celtics. I live for March Madness stunners, even the ones that torpedo my chances of winning the office pool. I loved “The Bad News Bears” so much that I still have a Tanner Boyle jersey hanging in my closet.
So in theory, I should have been eating it up when Westfield moved into the red zone on their final drive Saturday. But I wasn’t.
Well, for starters, when it comes to my job, I’m supposed to be a neutral observer. (Duh.) But also, when the Shamrocks were knocking on destiny’s door, this previously untouchable Center Grove team somehow felt like the underdog for once. And somehow, that just didn’t feel right.
There’s something to be said for witnessing greatness as it happens, even if that puts us in the position of rooting for an overwhelming favorite. It’s why TV golf ratings have always spiked anytime Tiger Woods was in the hunt at a major. It’s why Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong, despite being complete sociopaths, commanded the world’s attention for so long.
Center Grove has been historically dominant on the football field these past two seasons. It just wouldn’t have felt right for this last game to end in a loss.
I guess that on some level, the Trojans knew that too.
Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]