It was one last insult in a season of indignity.
The Pasadena Marshall High girls’ softball team had lost every game, lost in every imaginable fashion, lost by 28 runs once, lost so badly that opposing teams purposely made outs to save them further embarrassment.
And now, in their final game, they lost their coach because he temporarily lost his mind.
In the second inning of a 12-0 defeat at El Monte Mountain View, Mike Lundy had finally melted down, screamed at the umpires, been ejected from the game, and refused to leave the field.
Their finale was forfeited. One last jab. One more humiliation. They finished with a record of 0-18. They had been outscored 294-32. The Marshall girls glumly gathered their equipment and prepared to walk to the bus.
But first, there was something they had to do. Since they had not lost everything. They had not lost their pride. They had not lost their honor. Somehow, some way, they had still not lost their belief in the healing powers of sportsmanship.
So, even after a game that had been cut short, even after a season that had dragged forever, with their coach gone and their winless record cemented, the Marshall Eagles made the decision to line up single file at home plate.
They would not go home until they shook hands with the girls from Mountain View.
“So classy,” Mountain View coach Larry De La Rosa said. “So impressed.”
It was so Marshall, a team that spent the season steadily fighting their flaws while joyfully embracing their challenges, a team for which this final defeat was actually a final triumph.
No wins, yet nobody quit. No wins, yet everybody still chanted and cheered and hugged and believed.
No wins, no hope, no chance, but not once did they skip that handshake line.
“We might lose,” said Sara Bloom, a senior shortstop-outfielder. “But we lose like champions.”
They loved to chant. The Marshall High Eagles didn’t have many spectacular moments, so they would celebrate even the routine.
They would chant when a batter took a pitch.
“Good eye, good eye, way to watch that ball go by!”
They would chant when somebody made contact.
“Foul ball, foul ball, try again, try again!”
When they actually scored a run?
The noise coming from their bench would be deafening, and the joy would be real, and it would be shared, and it would be sung.
“I feel good, I feel great, I just stepped on home plate!”
“They’re kind of like the Bad News Bears,” said Henry Lewis, father of freshman outfielder Jorja Lewis. “But it’s given my daughter a connection.”
His daughter had never played any competitive sports before she joined the softball team this year, which is maybe why she was so giddy in their final home game when she reached third base.
“I’ve never been here before!” she exclaimed
“Glad you could visit me!” said Lundy, the third-base coach.
Scenes like these provided the answer to a question that surfaced several times during the reporting for this column.
Why write about a winless softball team?
Because the Eagles, who have won only one non-forfeited game in three years, are a reminder that the wildly competitive world of high school sports can still be about something other than the final score.
While their coach eventually lost his cool, they never did.
“It’s about being part of a team,” Bloom said.
While they would hear catcalls from the stands at opposing high schools, they never shouted back.
“It’s about improving each day,” junior catcher Maddie Stukel said.
While their parents continually worried about their state of mind, they continually shrugged and went back to work for themselves and one another.
“It’s amazing, everybody still showing up every day after all these losses,” senior pitcher Rosie Agdaian said. “It’s not about winning. It’s about forming bonds, creating friendships, growing together.”
When the season started, 13 of the 23 girls had never played softball. Some of them didn’t have gloves. Others didn’t have cleats. Many didn’t know the rules. For a while, everyone shared the same bat.
“A handful didn’t know how to throw or catch, and some of them didn’t know strike three was an out, but don’t say they didn’t try,” said Lundy, a 54-year-old substitute teacher who has coached them through the last three one-total-win seasons. “Every one of these girls tried their best, every day.”
Their home field has no scoreboard, which is probably a blessing. There are no dugouts, no bathrooms, and only a small collection of bleachers. There is also no outfield fence, so opposing line drives would keep rolling to the adjacent baseball field, and the Marshall girls would be chasing them down for days.
Attendance at their home games was often single digits. Every game ended early because of the 10-run mercy rule. They’ve lost 28-0, 20-3 and 19-1, bad to worse, game after game.
At first glance, the entire atmosphere would appear dusty and bleak.
“We get killed every game, but these girls are strong and they don’t care,” Lundy said. “They keep coming out because to them, togetherness is more important than winning.”
Look closer at their final home game, and see the support given Agdaian, who learned to become a pitcher because the team needed one, and who now has a sore shoulder from carrying so much of the load.
“We love you Rosie!” they chanted as she struggled to contain the powerful South El Monte offense. “You got this! You got this!”
Listen to them cheer for gritty freshman Alexandra Ortega Alvarez as the team’s only left-handed hitter keeps hitting foul balls.
“We love our lefty!” they screamed.
Check out the postgame senior day celebration as they moved beyond the 20-3 defeat to honor the team’s five seniors with flowers and buckets of Sour Patch Kids and Kit Kats.
But first, they surprised the South El Monte seniors with more flowers, the losers graciously making certain the winners don’t feel left out.
“Marshall loves the game, they come out here and work hard, it’s great to see,” said South El Monte coach Dean Bunting, whose team made several intentional outs to keep the score from being even more lopsided. “They’re improving, and I know they’re going to have a chance to be successful.”
Success in high school sports is a funny thing. Fittingly, at Marshall, it’s found on a scoreboard that doesn’t exist.
It can be seen in the tears of the Eagles as they surround their five departing seniors while reminiscing about team trips to Chipotle and Handel’s ice cream shop.
”It takes a lot of spirit to keep coming back when there’s not a lot of hope,” Stukel said. “We laugh together, we sweat together, we play hard together.”
It can be felt in the hugs of a team that lost so many times on this field yet refuses to leave it when this last home game is finished, lingering together as if celebrating a championship.
“We persevere, we come out every day like we’ve never lost,’’ assistant coach Devette Johnson said. “We’re fearless. It’s amazing.”
It can be heard in the words of freshman utility player Lola Gomez, who had never played the sport before this year, but who vows the losing will make her stronger.
“Sometimes it’s hard and I think, ‘Oh, I could have gotten that out easily’ or ‘Oh, I could have done better on that play,' ” she said. “But I know that I’m going to push myself and by the time I’m a senior, I’m going to do something.”
Yet by the time they stood for that handshake line at Mountain View a couple of days later, the Marshall Eagles had done something.
They redefined victory.
“Sports is all about winning? That’s as far from the truth as I can imagine,” Stukel said. “Sports is about having pride in your team, never giving up on your team, never quitting, no matter how hard you want to quit.”
Lundy has already polled his winless, weary players who haven’t graduated about their interest in playing next season. You’ll never guess who’s coming back. Or maybe you will.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.