Never underestimate 'the middle'

Editor's note: Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale shared a diary with ESPN.com for the fifth consecutive season. Coale has a master's degree in education and was a high school English teacher from 1989-96.

The problem with doing extraordinary things is that once you do them even the really good stuff that you do doesn't seem quite good enough. As I sit captive on this plane my insides run frantic trying to figure out a way to keep my team -- and my staff -- balanced on the fulcrum. Hemingway once said that "Life is filled with sobs, sniffles, and smiles -- with sniffles predominating." I believe him in my bones but this business balks.

I love the way participation in athletics forces one to disdain mediocrity. I love the push … the rush … I even in a twisted sort of "never-want-to-be-there-again" way, love the bottom so made of solid rock. I would even go so far as to say that I feel blessed to be a part of a profession that lives in such extremes. But I don't think mediocrity is the stuff of which Hemingway spoke. Even if it is, that is not his point.

This year began with our basketball team ranked 25th in the country. We were picked to finish fourth in our league. We were, in most minds anyway, somewhere in that periphery that circled just beyond the real guys, the guys in the serious hunt for all the stuff that matters. And that was probably right about where we belonged then, on paper anyway. What we have done in the five-plus months since then, however, is become. En route to that we won a Big 12 title; we won the Big 12 tournament; we won a conference-record 19 games; we won a school-best 19 consecutive games; we moved into the top 10 and stayed there; and we went to the Sweet 16. Not bad by even the stingiest standards. Unfortunately, the world judges you by the way it ends.

Our seniors found a way to leave their story better than they found it. Not an easy task when that meant hosting the After Party of 2002. Better how, one might ask, since we fell two games short of the Holy Grail in Boston? Better's hard when by definition it means you're supposed to win the last game you play. But better is how they have left us and their story, in all the ways that matter.

For those who judge success by numbers (which is, I suppose, the vast majority of the free world), our program is poised to do some special, special things. Our proverbial cupboard is full. Just to set the stage: We return 93 percent of our scoring and 89 percent of our rebounding. We return five starters and eight players who averaged more than 10 minutes a game. In addition, we add to the mix five very talented freshmen. We have set school records for attendance, both single game and season. And the fervor surrounding Oklahoma women's basketball has never been higher pitched.

But even with all that numerical proof, the construction work of Beky Preston and Laura Andrews can't really be calculated on paper. They took a beautiful foundation laid by Phylesha Whaley and Stacey Dales & Crew and they mapped out what could be. They have enabled us to make of this thing a palace over the next few years, if we're willing to finish the deal. Readying the soil is often the most intense labor; and if you've ever built a house, you know, the work that isn't visible to the common eye is often what most determines the magnitude of what can be built on top of it.

Our young guys learned from Laura and Bek how to be. They learned the energy that is required on a daily basis. They learned the necessity of sacrifice and the beauty of passing on wisdom that you only gain from going through the fire. The voice of Beky Preston will loom in their heads like a mother's sage advice as they will instinctively take the right road when it's hard and their egos are screaming. They will walk the walk because Bek has shown them how. My talented returnees also learned from their seniors that being good is fun and you shouldn't play like that is a secret. They will not get bored with winning -- the indelible images of Laura Andrews' joy won't let them. That's how you leave your story poised for a bigger better sequel. Those two guys were so good at being what we needed them to be.

So what do these good kids do when it's over and they're supposed to be playing and everyone they see is disappointed (not in them but for them) … what do they do? They run to each other and they hole up. Not to cry or even brood. Just to be. Because being together is comfortable and safe and they make each other strong. The seniors go get manicures because for the first time in forever they can have nails. Or they cut their hair because "layers that fit in a ponytail" is no longer a pre-requisite for their stylist. Collectively the returnees decide we should make a T-shirt: "If it weren't for the first four minutes …" and we all laugh until we cry because it's funny and we are trying to survive.

Hemingway was right. Rare are the times we climb the ladder, cut the nets and dance the night away. We did that twice this year -- lucky, lucky are we. And rarer, still, is the devastation we feel when the ball goes square and the wings of destiny flap over someone else's jerseys. That happened last Saturday [a 88-74 loss to Stanford on March 25]. Most of our year was somewhere in the middle of those two emotional explosions. That was his point.

Life is what happens to you while you aren't looking. So keep your eyes open, Ernest urges. Don't miss it. That's what I want my kids -- and my staff -- to know. Enjoy the days. Replay the stuff. Wallow in the wins we walked to as well as the wins we wrestled for. And don't let one set of 40 minutes define a year. You become in the middle. And at the end of all your days, the middle better be worth remembering or you won't have much.

So at the end of this year what I have is this: A picture in my office drawer from the Big 12 tournament championship -- my smile is the size of Owen Field. And a picture, in the very same drawer, from the Sweet 16 -- my face is in my hands.

What I have in my head, however, is this: Ashley Paris running, arms spread eagle, to wrap up Kendra Moore at the close of our Baylor game in Waco … Chelsi Welch nailing her patented fade with the right leg kick that guarantees it going in … Erin Higgins running full speed down the court after nailing a 24-foot shot, her right arm extended, index finger pointing squarely at the guy who passed her the ball … Courtney Paris yelping to the throng of OU faithful after converting two consecutive free throws in the waning minutes of our Big 12 tournament championship game … Britney Brown clapping from a defensive stance, her swagger infecting the teammates who wait behind her to guard their yard … Leah Rush tapping a single fist in the air en route to the free-throw line to convert a traditional three-point play … the entire team trying to screen for Carolyn Winchester in Stillwater … Krista Sanchez dropping a back-door bounce pass to Leah on a dime … silly dances, bad singing, clapping school, Bill Bradley layups, and a million little moments of extraordinarily ordinary stuff that keeps me sniffling along the way.

For more on coach Coale and the Sooners, visit Oklahoma's official athletic site.