A Supportive Team

Four intense days with the Tigers at Win Mumby

The final practice

Nineteen girls huddled around the tiger logo in the center of the gym, all anxious. It was a ritual: to become a Tiger, one must devote herself to the eye of the logo, the eye of the tiger.

As Mr. Steve Luukkonen, physical education teacher and basketball coach, rounded his Tigers, he redirected the girls’ attention to the issue at hand — Woodstock’s Win Mumby tournament.

The girls went along and did layup drills, practicing their entrance for all the games. Even for the final practice, all the players, including those who did not make the Win Mumby team, were there helping and preparing each other for battle.

The Win Mumby group consisted of the following:

  • Rachel Solomon, Class of 2019 (co-captain)
  • Malsawmsangi “Sangi” Ralte, Class of 2019 (co-captain)
  • Siri Norbu, Class of 2019
  • Saira Mehra, Class of 2020
  • Pooja Shankar, Class of 2020
  • Radha Laplamool, Class of 2020
  • Muzhgan Noori, Class of 2020
  • Delilah Meyer, Class of 2020
  • Gauri Pasbola, Class of 2021
  • Jinju Park, Class of 2021
  • Aadya Aryal, Class of 2021
  • Singye Norbu, Class of 2021

The girls started scrimmaging with each other: the non-Win Mumby players versus those on the roster for the tournament.

Mr. Luukkonen shouted different plays; the Tigers precisely executed them, knowing each one of the plays from memory.

“Cover that rim, always,” Rachel told Delilah.

After several intense scrimmages, the girls toned down a bit.

“We’re going to try a tall line up: Sangi!” Mr. Luukkonen called out.

They laughed.

On that note, Mr. Luukkonen called the Tigers back to the same spot: on the eye of the tiger.

“Hate to put you on spot,” he said, “but next time we do this is Win Mumby.”

He concluded the practice.

Game 1: Woodstock versus Shiv Nadar School

A tense lobby room contained the beating hearts of the girls, who all waited for the moment: the moment that they had been constantly working hard to dominate throughout their season —  Woodstock’s Win Mumby Basketball Tournament.

As the girls lined up before the entrance to the main court, swarms of students ran onto the sidelines, holding their hands out patiently to the stationary players.

The sound of a large drum being beaten in increasing pace reverberated across the gym.

The crowd cried in progressive unison: “Wood!” “Stock!” “Wood!” “Stock!” “Woodstock!” Bass guitar kicked in, “Eye of the Tiger” suddenly filled the entire gym.

The girls entered the floor aggressively, high-fiving the hundreds of fans who stood outside the court waiting for them; they ran and dribbled, until only the rim was left for them to conquer.

As the pre-game time dwindled, the girls huddled together. All bowed their heads down. Sangi led a prayer.

It was battle time.

“We fight together!” Mr. Luukkonen shouted as he released them onto the court.

The ball was suspended in the air, two hands ready to tip it to their teammates.Woodstock lost the opening tip, but Sangi got the rebound and swiftly made the first basket

The crowd erupted.

Shiv Nadar played a tight defense, but the girls managed to push through, scoring another bucket. Fouls bounced back and forth between the two teams, culminating in Woodstock’s bonus possession.

“Take that ball away, now take that ball away!” the crowd roared as the Tigers were back on defense.

One particular bench, filled with 11th and 12th grade boys, erupted in cheers on every possession, to the point where they were manipulating the referee’s calls on fouls that did not favor the Tigers.

“Keep playing tight-D, you’re doing great,” Mr. Luukkonen said as they huddled after the end of the first quarter. They were up 9-6.

“Good start, ladies!”

Before the Tigers realized, however, number 6 from Shiv Nadar shot a three-pointer.

She drained it.

The Tigers, unfazed, pulled out their own blow. Pooja grabbed an offensive board and was fouled. She proceeded to the free throw line.

The crowd shushed each other. All was quiet but Pooja’s breathing.

She shot, making both attempts.

The hyper section screamed once again. This time, Mr. Mark slowly walked over to them. He threatened that if they were going to continue displaying “unsportsmanlike” behavior, he would kick all of them out of the gym.

A part of the crowd died with Mr. Mark’s silencing.

Pressure started to kick in. Jinju went in for a steal. The ref called a reach.

“I didn’t even touch her!” she exclaimed.

Number 9 pulled up a shot, behind the perimeter, and drained it. The crowd hushed.

“Get back on the safety. In the second half, we’ll switch to zone,” Mr. Luukkonen said to the girls in a quick time out.

The Tigers continued to struggle, giving up three rebounds. Number 10 got the stylish reverse hook off on Rachel. Holes in the defense were becoming more prominent.

“Why are there open guys?” Gauri screamed from the bench.

The Tigers were feeling even more pressured: they started slipping the ball, giving free fast breaks to the other team.

“Dribble with a purpose,” Rachel said to the team as the first half ended. They were down, 11-17.

Radha drained a shot off the board. The crowd was up again. The girls were rekindled with energy.

Not for long, however. Number 10 pulled up a long two in front of two Tigers.

Nothing but net.

The Tigers took shot after shot. Nothing went in. Shiv Nadar increased the score differential. Rachel grabbed the boards and put shots back in. It wasn’t enough: the Tigers, especially the younger ones, were being crowded by the crowd.

“Switch the high and the low. Rebounders, get in there, get aggressive,” Mr. Luukkonen said to the girls. He looked at every one of them. Then looked at the fully packed gym.

“This is freakin’ Win Mumby!” he exclaimed to the girls.

Saira whizzed past the defense, scoring a bucket.

Woodstock was down by 12.

“Game’s not over, why are you crying?” Rachel said to Gauri, who was putting her head down on the bench.

Shiv Nadar, knowing the lead they established, held the ball out for as long as possible. The Tigers scored, but the lead grew longer and longer as the game went on.

Mr. Luukkonen called a timeout in the last minutes of the game. He pointed at the scoreboard: “How much time is left on the clock?”

The girls followed his fingers.

“It’s not zero yet.”

The Tigers pushed till the last second. Fate seemed to shine poorly. Woodstock lost their first game, 34-25.

“I missed so many shots,” Sangi said as she was reflecting on the game. “Second quarter: We started panicking when they started having a lead.”

“Stupid loss. Coulda’ easily won. Can’t chalk it up to nerves ‘cuz we were out of nerves after the first five minutes,” Rachel added.

Mr. Luukkonen, letting the girls have enough time to reflect, picked up a marker and wrote on the whiteboard, Positives!!

“What were the positives?” he asked the team.

“We played to the last second,” Gauri replied.

“I saw a bunch of girls that at no point started fighting with each other … No falling apart as a family. The team was unknown, they had good shooters: they shot outside and made it,” Mr. Luukkonen said. “In our minds, entering the tournament, while being undefeated [in previous tournaments], we had this fairy tale that we would easily win. There’s always a game like this, pushing us. I’m glad it came.”

He then stepped closer to the team, with a sterner face.

“I want you to look around the room, make eye contact with everyone,” he said.

The girls jerked their heads in every direction. They giggled because of the awkwardness.

“This is weird,” one of them said.

“You have fought battles with these people. We keep pushing it and we keep playing hard,” Mr. Luukkonen concluded.

With that, the girls were on livestream, with many other former players supporting them via the comments section. Players who were sick because of the flu going around campus were also sending text messages to the players, congratulating them for their efforts.

“Doesn’t matter who we play. Play like how you would. How you know how,” Rachel said resolutely.

The girls huddled together, stacking all of their hands in the center of the circle.

“Tomorrow. Brand new day,” Mr. Luukkonen shouted.

“3 … 2 … 1… Tigers!” they all exclaimed in unison.

Game 2: Woodstock versus Strawberry Fields High School: The Clash of Centers

“It’s nerve-wracking. Playing against your ex-teammates is not easy. We’re gonna give a tough fight,” Tarini Boparai, a former Class of 2019, said when asked about her upcoming game against the Tigers.

Tarini used to be a key player on the Tigers roster two years ago, until she left the school to move to Strawberry Fields High School, where she also played a key role as a center.

During Tarini’s absence the following year, Woodstock acquired Rachel Solomon, who has served as starting center ever since she joined.

A rivalry was born — one that all of the girls, especially those who had also been Tarini’s teammates, wanted to see.

“May the best team win,” Tarini concluded.

The Tigers lined up, the entrance ceremony began. Nerves began wracking up. It was redemption time.

“Enjoy the game, no pressure,” Ms. Venna, dance teacher and active supporter, cheered.

Rachel and Tarini walked up to the center of the court, eyeing each other. Then they squatted, waiting to explode into the air.

The ref tossed the ball.

Rachel won the tip, but Strawberry Fields got the first possession.

Immediately, Tarini ran into the center of the paint, hoping for a quick, easy bucket.

Rachel ran in front of her. Tarini got the ball and tried to dribble past Rachel. It was body against body, strength against strength, hustle against hustle.

Tarini jumped to put in a lay-up, Rachel jumped higher.

She blocked the shot.

The crowd roared.

Tarini was zoned by Rachel. The Tigers were taking care of the paint, but the perimeter was open.

Seeing these holes, Strawberry Fields shot and made their buckets.

They ran past the defense and attempted distant layups, but were fouled by the Tigers.

Woodstock was down by seven points, scoring none.

“They’re getting their shots from the free throws,” Sangi said in a needed timeout.

“Change it up to spread. Pick up the cuts. If that doesn’t work, get the post game. Get it down low,” Mr. Luukkonen rapidly fired.

Strawberry Fields was in the bonus with 3:05 left on the clock.

Rachel and Tarini proceeded to go for the same rebound. Both their hands were on the ball. Grip against grip. Muscle against muscle. Determination against determination.

Woodstock got the possession. Mr. Luukkonen shouted in joy. Radha drained a 2-point shot.

Woodstock was now only down by one.

“They’re gonna be tired, push that defense,” Mr. Lukkonen said as the quarter drew to a close.

The Tigers ran the full court press. Number 11 from Strawberry Fields shot behind the perimeter.

She nailed the three.

“Defense is always on Rachel, find the open short post,” Mr. Luukkonen said to the panting Tigers.

The Tigers, however, became even more aggressive — fouling when the other team was simply bringing the ball up.

“The only way their team works is by free-throws. Stop fouling,” Rachel said.

The crowd rekindled in energy, crying, “Let’s go Woodstock, let’s go!”

Each step became heavier. Every breath deeper. In frustration and fatigue, the Tigers continued fouling. The full court press was draining them.

“New plan: We’re gonna cut up everyone from the full-court press except Tarini. No more fouls!” Mr. Luukkonen exclaimed.

Jinju drove through the defense and made an aggressive lay up. The Tigers were regaining their strength.

The Tigers lashed their claws and fought; however, the stalemate wore out both teams equally. Time was crunching down. Every moment mattered now.

“Contain every single person next to you,” Sangi said in the final time-out.

Number 10 was fouled; she made one shot. It was a tie game, with less than a minute remaining on the clock.

Fouls started bouncing back and forth on both teams, all in an effort at slowing time. Time that would determine everything.

Saira attempted a shot in the high post, got fouled. She lined up on the free throw line. The crowd was silent. Only the bouncing of the ball was heard.

It all came down to these two shots … an entire season of effort and determination would be defined in two moments. Saira took a shot, missing the first. A pang of uncertainty entered the hearts of the crowd.

She looked into the ring. Sweat drizzled down her head. Light shone on the ball and her. She released the ball into the air.

Milliseconds passed with all eyes on the rising basketball.

It went in. The entire gym erupted in cheers.

The Tigers regained their lead.  Number 4 was fouled, making only one shot. Gauri pulled up a three, draining it to beat the buzzer.

Swarms of students ran onto the court, high-fiving and hugging the tired Tigers.

Woodstock won, 37-33.

“We didn’t give up till the last second,” Pooja said as she was reflecting on the game.

“Adaptability is a big thing: we filled the holes and drilled the shots,” added Mr. Luukkonen.

Mr. Luukkonen then talked to the younger players who didn’t get a chance to play that night, reminding them that they were still crucial to the team. They were crucial to the family.

“Teamwork makes the dream work. That’s exactly what we did tonight,” he concluded.

Game 3: Woodstock versus Motilal Nehru School of Sports

I walked into the Tigers’ meeting room ten minutes before their call time. Surprised, I found the entire team sitting there, unchanged — discussing issues, plans, and strategies before the coach even came.

“A lotta people who play now had a lot of time on the bench in the past,” Rachel said as they were discussing playing time.

“We don’t want you to feel bad for subbing you in,” Sangi added.

“It’s not like we’re really happy playing the fourth quarter,” Radha slowly added, telling the team that it was incredibly exhausting.

“You guys are playing, us playing. It’s like one thing. We’re all one team,” Aadya, who was one of the substitutes in the game, replied.

“Support on the bench is as important as on the court,” Delilah added.

Today’s game was against Motilal Nehru, a school solely dedicated to their sports program. The Tigers were going up against players who did nothing but practice basketball all day. Motilal obliterated the other teams in the pool: they won 47-8 against Strawberry Fields and 66-20 against Shiv Nadar.

“Regardless of how we play today, no matter what the score, just play to be happy,” Rachel said to ease the anxiety.

“Don’t go there unconfident. Expect the unexpected,” Sangi said.

On that note, Rachel started discussing their game plan. She took a whiteboard marker and attempted to draw a court but failed. Sangi swept in for the rescue.

After a couple of minutes of effort, they decided to give up and leave the coaching to the coach.

The girls then proceeded to get changed and came back, munching on some quick snacks before the game.

“Write that we always eat chocolate,” Gauri said as she was staring at my notebook.

“Have you guys tried chocolate and popcorn?” Sangi asked after grabbing Parle-G biscuits.

While they were eating, the girls started teasing one player. It was teenage girls being teenage girls, talking about the romantic life of one of the players.

“It’s fine, we’re a team. We tell each other everything,” Radha said to me.

Mr. Luukkonen entered the room and started playing footage of how the other team played, exposing gaps in their 2-2-1 defensive strategy. The Tigers were going to manipulate their defense, forcing their two perimeter defenders to follow the guard, Sangi or Saira, and therefore leaving a huge gap in the middle of the paint for Rachel to score.

“Can I go down the middle?” Sangi asked Mr. Luukkonen.

“No, that’s a death trap. You’ll get murdered,” he replied.

Mr. Luukkonen assigned the numbers that each Tiger had to guard. It was pre-battle preparation. The room intensified.

“Tonight, we finish proving that we belong with any team that comes to Win Mumby,” Mr. Luukkonen said.

“If we wanna win like a team, we gotta play like a team,” Sangi added.

“Guys, remember that feeling yesterday when we won?” Saira asked everyone.

“Play with that energy!”

It was back to the same lobby, now — this time, it was possible that some players, the seniors, were going to be here for the very last time. It was the final fight — the fight for qualification.

The Tigers lined up. Their eyes fixated only on what was before them, a basketball hoop. The crowd chanted the pep roar. “Eye of the Tiger” started playing.

“Let’s go! Our game! Our game! Our game!” Aryan Balani, Class of 2019, screamed, high-fiving the hungry Tigers as they ran onto the court.

Woodstock won the tip-off. Immediately, the game became fast-paced. Both teams were attacking the basket, occasionally fouling one another. Motilal had fast shooters, drilling past the Tiger defense.

Woodstock was down by 6 at 5:50.

The opposing team’s crowd was becoming rowdy, shrill bird-like shrieks  irritated the ears of many Woodstockers.

“We have to cover the high and low for defense,” Rachel said.

The Tigers were beginning to attract fouls, stacking them up against Motilal. They were learning from the previous game.

Sangi stole the ball and lobbed it in front for Saira to grab and score a quick layup. Except Saira didn’t look quickly enough and the ball went out-of-bounds.

“Saira! Eyes on the ball!” Rachel screamed.

Rachel pushed herself deep into the heart of the paint, surrounded by three other players whose sole purpose was to stop her from getting to the rim.

The ref called a foul. Rachel was on the line. Mr. Luukkonen, however, eyed the ref. He put up nine and then seven fingers. The ref did the same.

The ref blowed the whistle. Number 97 had fouled out.

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Mr. Luukkonen said, jumping up and down in front of the bench.

The Tigers, energized again, pushed through the last remaining minutes of the quarter.

“99 — four fouls. 8 — four fouls. Let’s get them out of the game! 70 is dead tired. Let’s make them all dead tired,” Mr. Luukkonen said.

Rachel dashed through three defenders, making eye contact with the biggest one in the paint. Surrounded by almost the entire team, Rachel didn’t falter. She pushed with her body and got the hook shot off the defenders.

“[Expletive] beast man,” Pooja said.

Number 70 pulled up at the top of the key, draining the long two-point shot.

Saira got smashed in the nose. The ref did not see. She shook it off. There was no time for rest in an all-out war.

The Tigers kept pushing, but Motilal simply had too many cuts and drives, too much energy.

Radha attempted a drive, but Motilal’s center jumped into the air. Shot blocked. Another pang of despair filled the crowd.

Two minutes were left on the clock. Woodstock was down by 10. All the shots were ringing everywhere but the basket.

“Push! Push!” Mr. Luukkonen shouted from the bench.

The crowd, regardless of the score, cheered on: “Let’s go Woodstock, let’s go!”

As the clock dwindled down, emotions filled the gym. Woodstock lost, 47-35. And with that, they were knocked out of the 19th All-India Win Mumby Tournament. Their opponent would go on to win the championship the next day.

Some Tigers cried as they exited the court, receiving hugs from friends.

“They put their hearts out,” Mr. Jeff said to Mr. Luukkonen.

Family

The gym classroom was filled with teary-eyed girls. Some were putting their heads down. Most were sobbing.

“You guys put up a good fight,” Mrs. Nagarwalla said as she was comforting the girls.

“I know it’s really sad we lost, but we played to the last second, okay?” Saira said.

“We got our game back tonight, maybe it was a little too late,” Rachel added.

Mr. Luukkonen proceeded to take a marker from the desk. On the whiteboard, he wrote: “Love / Determination / Family!!!”

The girls started crying again.

“You just gave a fight to a school that gives nothing but sports every day. We gave them the toughest fight in this tournament. That was worth more than any trophy.

“Ladies, what you did, your dedication this fall, your love for each other. You never gave up to the very last second.

“These are all life-skills that will get you very far. I could not be any prouder of you. You fought together as a family. On a paper, it might say a loss, but in your hearts it’s a win.

“Whenever you decide to leave this room, leave it with your head up, with pride,” Mr. Luukkonen said. He then walked out of the classroom, telling the girls to call him back once they were ready.

“I just wanna say thanks guys … because I felt …. the basketball team … because of this basketball team, I felt really accepted at Woodstock. Thank you for the two years you have given me. I know the season hasn’t ended, but I love you guys,” Rachel said, choking back tears.

“Guys, I just want to say that throughout my time at Woodstock, I’ve never been so happy playing basketball. I’m sad about the seniors leaving as well,” Radha added, in tears.

“I wanna say thank you so much guys. You supported us outside of school, the game as well. This means a lot to me,” Gauri added.

“Thank you for welcoming me to the team … I never had more support in my life,” Delilah, who was a new student at the school this year, said.

“You guys are the best teammates I can ask for. Some I’ve known since I came, some recently. We’re like sisters. You’re family. I will never forget this team,” Sangi added.

The girls called back their coach. As he entered, he said, “I don’t care what anyone says out there. You know and I know we did our best. That’s all that matters.”

The Tigers huddled for the last time, in a circle. This time, they weren’t playing basketball. They were praying, for each other.

“Thank you for giving me the best team for my last season of basketball,” Rachel said.

One of the younger girls, Meto Seldon, Class of 2022, who did not play any game but was there supporting the older girls on and off the court during games, said, “So many young girls look up to you guys as our role models.”

“Thank you for being so strong. Next year, I hope you guys go strong,” Siri, a senior, added.

“Thank you God for giving me sisters. Thank you for giving me a coach like Mr. L, who has been through so many ups and downs,” Sangi said.

“You guys are one of the most loving and supporting people in my entire life. Thank you Mr. L for your support, you are like our father,” Radha added in tears.

“Thanks for enduring the longest prayer in the history of prayers,” Mr. Luukkonen said to God. “Thank you for giving me the most amazing group of daughters I could ask for. I ask forgiveness for not putting Siri on the court in the last seconds. This has been the closest we have ever been to a championship.

“Thank you for these girls supporting me through my dark times last year. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. Give these 15 girls the most happiness in life.”

“If they aren’t running after you, they’re running after the refs,” he concluded.

Everyone collapsed in hugs.

“You’re a leader on this team,” Rachel said to Gauri, a tenth grader. “No matter what the end of the game is, you’d always push.

“Don’t be sad, we’re still gonna cook for you.”

The girls, one-by-one, hugged Mr. Lukkonen and walked out the door. They embraced each other. For some, it would be the last time.

They started this tournament tensed about Win Mumby. Walking out, every Tiger knew that it was so much more than just a game.

It was family.


With apologies to Ben Joravsky’s “A Simple Game.”

Rohan Mathias contributed reporting.

Edited by Hyenjin Cho

Photo by Joanna Victor

4 thoughts on “A Supportive Team

  1. Markhamsan Lyndem, staff reporter

    You’vs really improved over the years Dhrub. Remember all those essays that you showed me over the years and I never said were good? Well, this is good. Very good. Congratulations mate.

    Liked by 1 person

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