TORRINGTON—One by one, they emerged from the locker room, wearing the look of fallen gladiators.
Eyes red and puffy. Heads dazed and spinning. Hearts broken by the reality that the end had finally arrived.
They were far from home, in a foreign gymnasium, on the wrong end of a dream-shattering score, but they were together.
For one last time, as Stratford basketball players, they were together.
Mike August, John Bike, Zach Fedak, Jack Ryan, and Preston Williams.
To the Torrington High faithful, who got to celebrate Thursday night’s 72-47 win, they were just five names on an opposing roster.
Truth be told, these five Sons of Stratford, all seniors playing their final games in a Red Devils uniform, were so much more.
They were teammates.
They were friends.
They were brothers.
A loss in the second round of the CIAC Division III state tournament wasn’t ever going to change that.
“This group, this senior group, was an excellent group,” Stratford coach Tim Swaller said. “They’re a group that came in and worked hard and bought into everything we were doing. The last one always hurts. It’s always going to hurt.”
As the final seconds ticked down on this last one, this last game together, Swaller opted to leave all five seniors out on the court together until the final horn sounded.
That’s right where they deserved to be when the end finally came.
“They wanted to finish things out, so that’s what we did,” the third-year coach said. “And we didn’t quit. We were down, but we didn’t quit.”
There has never been any quit in these Red Devils, who don’t just play for their town and their school, but each other.
Down by double digits, knowing the end was drawing near with each passing second, Stratford kept playing hard.
“We had to finish strong,” Williams said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the last game of the season, or the last game of our careers, we knew we had to finish strong.”
For their parents, watching the end come too soon, there were certainly reflections to past seasons, past years.
For the most part, their journeys started at the Sterling House. What were they then? Maybe second grade? Maybe third graders?
They were teammates, they were opponents. But they all found basketball right around the same time and soon they would find each other.
It was the Wooster Middle School that truly brought them all together and forged a bond that didn’t end with the final game of their high school careers.
Brothers who go to battle will never forget.
“I’ll never forget these days,” Bike said. “I’ve played with them. I’ve played against them. We’re like a big family. They’re all my brothers.”
All of Bike’s brothers echoed his sentiments.
“I’ve been playing with these guys since I was little,” Williams said. “To finish out a good season with my brothers, that’s all I can ask for.”
Added Ryan, “It was fun to be out there with my brothers. I couldn’t have asked for a better season. I don’t want to replace it. Looking back, no regrets. I’m not happy we went out like this, but it’s a part of the game.”
August, the senior whose literal broken heart led him to have open-heart surgery before his junior year, knew how extra special this extra season was for him and his new classmates.
“People say it flies by, and I was grateful enough to have this extra year, so for me, it really hurts,” he said. “This year, out of all my years, it was just so awesome to be out there with my best friends.”
Fedak’s role with the Red Devils grew the most this season as he contributed both big 3-pointers and outstanding hustle and defense to Stratford’s efforts all winter long.
In defeat, just like his teammates, he also contributed tears that he admitted caught him off guard. But it happens when you care that much.
“This is the first time I’ve ever shed a tear for a sport,” Fedak said. “Playing with my best friends since I was young, it’s hard to leave without them. This season meant a lot to me. It’s hard.”
Soon, they will graduate and go their separate ways.
Off to college. Then, off to build families of their own. Off to the rest of their lives.
Stratford’s 2018-19 season—which saw 14 wins against nine defeats–will take on a vastly different meaning as they grow older.
The pain of Thursday’s loss will fade away.
The final won-loss record will be forgotten.
Any points-per-game tallies, or rebounds pulled down, or steals recorded and assists dished out, will be stuffed into boxes, tucked away in the back room of some athletic office.
The number of memories, however, will live on forever.
Mike. John. Zach. Jack. Preston–You will never forget each other.
Stratford High School will never forget you.
(On the Sidelines is a regular online feature column written by Stratford Sports Scene managing editor John Nash)