Any discussion of Saturday night's CIF regional bowl game (or playoff, or whatever they ended up calling it) featuring the Monrovia Wildcats and Madison Warhawks would be dishonest if it didn't state the obvious: The Wildcats beat themselves.
Take one glimpse at the statistics - three interceptions (one in the end zone, one returned for a touchdown and one near the goal line in the final seconds) and one fumble (deep in their own territory, giving Madison its first touch down) - and it's painfully obvious that this was the Wildcats' game to win, and they gave it away.
But, as noted, that's the obvious. Any hack with a stats sheet can write the obvious.
What's not so obvious is that, though the clock hit zeros with the Warhawks ahead, the Wildcats were the better team. Oh, sure, turnovers are part of the game, and a big part, and no team can win if they don't hold on to the ball. By that measure, Madison won.
But, on a play-by-play, man-to-man basis, Monrovia ran away with it.
The proof also lies in the stats: The Warhawks only had one touchdown that wasn't given to them by the Wildcats, a fourth-quarter kick-off return that made the difference. Take away the others, and it was easily a 28-7 Monrovia victory, if not better.
But what the stats don't show is the amazing heart our hometown team displayed. From the first kick-off to the final drive (which came after Madison celebrated an apparently certain victory), the 'Cats hung in.
When Madison got the ball with about two minutes on the clock and a four-point lead, the stands began to empty. The Wildcats' sideline did not, in anyway. Not of players. Not of strategy. Not of heart.
With some nifty clock management by Coach Ryan Maddox, Monrovia had the ball back with 50 seconds to play, and started driving with poise and composure. That the game essentially ended on an interception is irrelevant. A lesser team wouldn't have had the ball back, never mind getting close.
But the real story of this game is best described in an old cliche: It wasn't the size of the dog in the fight, it was the size of the fight in the... 'Cats. The Wildcats were clearly out-sized by the Warhawks in every way. Each Monrovian who lined up on every down was looking up at his counterpart by at least six inches.
When I saw the two teams enter, I mumbled premonitions of a long, painful night.
It was anything but. The 'Cats front lines on both sides of the ball gave as good as they got. It was the Monrovians who moved at will and the lumbering Warhawks who scurried after them.
The Monrovia offensive backfield, aside from the gi-normous George Frazier V, looked like they'd tagged along from the local elementary school, compared to the Warhawk defensive mass. It made no difference. The Wildcats' backs used their speed off the edges with the muscle of their front line to suck up yards in 4s, 6s, and dozens.
It was a sight to behold. By the middle of the second quarter, the Warhawks punt receivers weren't exactly ready to go when Monrovia faced third and 10+. Because another first down was probably coming up.
There were two great lessons on display at the Don Montgomery Sports Complex tonight. One was that you can't win by fumbles and interceptions. Those young men will dwell on that painful education for months to come. Hopefully that sting will still be fresh when summer two-a-days start next August (whether at MHS or a college).
But the other lesson is that heart can overcome size and circumstance. That grit, tenacity and sweat can keep you in the fight and keep you going. That even when you've made your own circumstance worse, you can make it better if you dive deeper and hit harder.
The Wildcats won't play for the State Championship next week. They'll have to merely settle for their third consecutive Mid-Valley Division Title (a feat almost any other high school or college in the country would envy).
But if they dwell on the lessons of tonight, they'll set themselves up for championships in all they do for the rest of their lives. And that's a victory Coach Maddox and Principal Darvin Jackson will trade for any day of the week.
Hold your heads high, Wildcats. You made us proud.