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In the gym at Wrenshall (Minn.) High School, the girl's basketball team stretches before practice with a series of chants that end with an elusive wish. "Victory!"
A plaque dedicated to a not-long-ago tournament team watches over them. There will be no state tournament for this year's Wrenshall Wrens. Chances are there won't be a victory, either. The Wrens entered the week 0-17 and ranked 18,558th nationally.
In small towns like Wrenshall -- population 386 with a high school enrollment of under 100-- graduations can rob a team of talent in a hurry. The starters have to play most of the game; players on the junior varsity make up much of the bench, even though they've usually just finished playing their own game.
In December, Wrenshall lost a game to Moose Lake 65-0. The girls have every right to be dispirited. Amazingly, they're not. Not even close. In Wrenshall, you show who you are by showing up.
"Other teams have said, 'Why even show up or try?' You know, we're going to try because we like the sport and we're going to give it our all, because we want to play," says 11th-grader Christine Laveau, who was one of two current players who played on the 2008 Wrenshall state tournament team. Showing up and playing hard, she says, shows respect.
It's something the world didn't give her team when the 65-0 loss made national news. The jokes have died down now. "It's just a game. You're not going to die because you lose 65-nothing," co-captain Maria Burcar says.
NO MORE SHUTOUTS
The team set a goal for itself after the Moose Lake game: It wouldn't be shut out again. When Barnum High School, one of the best teams in the state, played Wrenshall last month, the Bombers scored 118 points on the Wrens, who were quick to find the positive; Wrenshall scored 12.
It takes a grown-up bunch of kids to see the value in a 106-point loss.
"Even though we didn't play our best, we still scored points against them and that made us feel better because we scored points against them. So it's like a positive thing for us," Natalie Peeney says.
"They're learning every day and they're open to learning, which is very important with basketball, and they show up. We haven't had anybody quit, and I really commend them for their commitment this year" says Wrenshall coach Michelle Blanchard, who turned to her big brother for help after the Moose Lake loss. Damian LaFave, along with Sheri Nelson, serve as assistants.
"Before every game, they're pumped up like they're the number-one team in the state and after every game, they're smiling and joking around," LaFave says. "They're wiped out, they're tired, but the other team coaches and players get a perplexed look like, "What are they so happy about? The score was this to this?'"
Talk to each Wrenshall girl about their memory of this season, and no one mentions losing. Samantha Gan, a 7th grader, scored a basket at the buzzer in a loss to Cromwell while having an asthma attack.
Transfer student Beth Stewart got the playing opportunity she couldn't get at a bigger school. "I like this school better," she says. "I like the smaller numbers because you don't get much opportunity at Denfeld. Coaches look for players from certain families."
Taylor Dagger picked up 8 fouls in an afternoon's work, playing first for the JV, and then for the varsity in consecutive games.
Franzi Schwarz is playing organized basketball for the first time in her life. She's an exchange student from Germany.
It's all fun, they say, except for the occasional jokes from classmates.
" It's like when we showed up at school the other (day) and and it was like, "did you guys win?" "No" says Burcar. "And they'd go off and make fun of us and it's like 'You weren't there, you don't know how we played.' It could be a good game and we lost by 30. But we still played well and we're still going to be positive the next day."
SPORTSMANSHIP ON THE COURT
What some of her classmates don't appreciate about the Wrens' positive approach, Laveau says, some of her team's opponents do.
"Some of them personally walk up to you and shake your hand and tell you what you've been doing good at," she says. "Even some of the parents have walked up to me and told me my team has lots of spirit and they've been giving their hearts to it." Opposing coaches have also counseled the kids.
Let's be clear here. Nobody likes losing. But "you're there to have fun," says Laveau. "You're not there to win every game. You're out there to have fun. And learn and get more experience doing things like learning from your coaches and teammates. Learning from other people."
Some schools have tried to take it easy on the Wrenshall girl's. "We had one school that wanted our varsity to play their JV and our JV to play their junior high.... and that wasn't going to happen because we're going to play at the level we're at," Burcar says.
The players credit their coaches for never yelling at them. The coaches credit their players for never quitting. "They're a great group of kids," Blanchard says. "And it's made our losing streak easier because they are a great group of girls. They stay positive and you've seen they work hard. We've had team meetings here and there. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I just asked the girls, 'How do you feel about us coaches?' It's important to have their perspective, too. I'm not the type of person that just preaches and preaches and preaches."
A CHANCE TO BREAK THE STREAK
Monday night was parents night at the Wrenshall gym. The girls gave their parents flowers during introductions. But then it was time for work.
Wrenshall quickly fell behind the Cromwell Cardinals, 12-0. They trailed 29-6 at halftime.
When Blanchard called a time out, she had one piece of advice ("Calm down") and one observation ("You guys are doing awesome...").
If an attitude was all it took, the stage was set for a stirring Wrenshall second-half comeback. But attitude is not all it takes. Cromwell brought 18 players to Wrenshall. They were older, quicker, and, frankly, better.
Wrenshall lost, 54-20, and fell to 0-and-18 on the season. Though they held Cromwell scoreless over the last six minutes, that's not quite as exhilarating as a win. Neither is the fact that a 34-point loss on Monday night is substantially better than their 64-point loss to the same team last month. But it's progress.
The team is back practicing for an upcoming game against their rivals -- the Carlton Bulldogs. They predict a win.
Someday, it may be Wrenshall's turn to beat a team, 65-0. They already know what they'll tell their vanquished opponents. "Just keep going. Don't give up, just because you had a bad game," they said.
In other words: Be like the women of Wrenshall.
I predict some terrific college application essays from this group of girls...
Good for them. Many school sports are far too victory-focused. Learning to accept losing and find the good in what you did and in just playing the game is just as important, if not more so. My experiences in intramural softball were all about that, and I really enjoyed them.
My junior high girls have lost games 76-7 and 68-2 and we're in a tough conference. But they keep showing up each practice and they begin to see the bright side when they beat their last "record" in a game. I'm going to read this article to them and challenge them to continue to be like the "women of Wrenshall!!"
I took books on parents night and the Wrenshall girls really did play well. When you think that they have three girls on their varsity team that haven't played basketball at even close to a varsity level they did great. They were not cheap and didn't get angry about how the score looked. I would also have to say that both teams played every player and Cromwell was a great sport at not pushing to get stats for their players. Cromwell played hard, but didn't try and run up the score. Both teams were a class acts. Good job Wrens, keep up your efforts and enjoy the game.
I've experienced the heart and soul of WHS first hand. I am not surprised by the attitude of this team and the approach of the coaches. They are ALL a class act. Just keep breathin', you "women of Wrenshall." You make me proud.
Thanks for this story and for following up with the Wrenshall girls. Reminds me of my high school soccer experience. Took us half the season to score our first point. When we did, we all flipped out like we had won the state championships. It was fun.
It's nice to hear of the kind of sportsmanship this team brings to the sport. Today in the younger grades they teach the little kids that there are no winners or losers and I believe that is wrong.
There is nothing wrong with losing as long as you played to win and did it honorably. Congratulations to all of the Fighting Wrens.
One of the best - if not THE BEST story in basketball this year at any level anywhere in this country. Amidst the Stefan Marbury and Agent Zero stories. The super NBA egos and their bad affect on the sport comes the story of some kids and their coaches working hard and not quitting. Working and trying to improve with every game. Giving their best and doing their best. How can you beat that/
This is the best story about basketball in the United States this year... By far....
Thank you for putting out such a positive story
about our girls. As a mom that has sat in the stands all season, this story is a breath of fresh air. These girls are doing their best and really have a lot of heart. It's great that someone in the media has something positive to put out there.
I was part of a high school basketball team that had a four-year, 48-game losing streak. It wasn't so much about the wins and losses, as about playing and being part of a team. Like the article said, in a bigger school (we had 36 students in grades 7-12 in the 80's) I would never have had the chance to play, and I appreciated participating even though I was just a benchwarmer on a losing team.
We finally broke our losing streak with one game in a season, but within a few years after that our school had good teams again. We never lost our spirit.
The coach we had during that time is still beloved by our community, and just became a Division 1 coach. http://www.vnews.com/02052010/6370048.htm He says his years in our small town were his best.
Thanks for sharing this story about these remarkable girls.
My daughter was on a perennially losing soccer team. When they'd play an undefeated team I'd tell her that scoring a point was like winning the game. The girls came to play, upbeat all the time. Winning wasn't such a big deal to them-it was playing as hard as they could. It was the best soccer experience I've had.
I grew up in small town Barnum and we moved to Wrenshall last summer. I love Wrenshall and glad my kids go to school here. This school has great values and great teachers and staff. I wish I could have played sports here due to their outlook and team spirit. It is about having fun and not all about winning. Its about teaching kids values and getting ready for the future. I didn't get that in Barnum sports. Some other schools we played were also just as competitive. It wasn't always fun and we didn't always get along. Hooray for Wrenshall. I'm proud to say I am from this town.
With every game I have watched, the Wrenshall girls have given their all... and improved 110%. Growing up in the Wrenshall district, it's not a surprise to read about the girls' work ethic and values. I am proud of what this team has accomplished, and look forward to what they will become as they continue to grow as athletes and young adults.
Thank you, Bob... for your story, and bringing to light what being from Wrenshall is all about.