They were bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and older than we were - easily the best team in the co-ed community volleyball league. In simple terms, we'd won 5 games out of the 36 in the season, and they had lost 4.
We went up against them valiantly and played our hearts out, because that's the reason we came, and we really were steadily improving. 11-21, 17-21, and the final 20-22 that was lost (or won, depends on whose perspective you're looking at) on a very sketchy call.
Obviously we were disappointed to have come so close and to have them overrule in their own favor, but nothing prepared us for what came next. While walking off the court, our opponent said to her teammate, (for us to overhear) "I just can't get into games like that. I don't even know why they play, they're so f***ing terrible!""
Our reaction was just what you might expect... we retreated to our corner, seethed, cried, seethed some more, and tried to piece back together our shattered faith in humanity.
"You guys, I feel a little sorry for her. If winning a volleyball game makes her that mad, how sad is the rest of her life?"
"Guys, it really doesn't matter what she said. Just let it go!"
"Seriously, what a sad person..."
"You know, we ought to go say something nice to her."
So ten minutes after the stinging remark was thrown out, three of us jumped up and walked over to where she was sitting with her teammates and friends. I don't remember the exact words we said, but it was something like, "thanks for the game, you guys played awesomely, yada yada..." What I do remember, the part that is etched into my brain is the way that their jaws dropped. The girl who had vocally berated us sat there speechless, looking at the floor while her friend looked at us like we'd come from another planet.
"Why would you say that? Why would you be nice?" he demanded.
"Because we really had fun playing against a team of your caliber. It challenged and stretched us, and it was fun!"
We turned around and walked out of the gym with a spring in our step. It took every ounce of self control I had to not turn around and look to see if there really were physical "coals of fire" sizzling on their heads. It felt good. We realized that in that moment, we were the better team. We were bigger, stronger smarter, and in some ways, older than they were.
Two weeks later we re-matched this top team for the first game of the tournament, and I almost had to double check the roster to make sure it was the same team, that's how changed they were. Their attitudes were transformed. They offered encouragement, advice, and even praise to our fledgling team. I don't know the story of their lives or what cause the difference, but I like to think that when our life story collided with theirs, somehow we left a mark.