I have a new appreciation for youth sports.

Sports in general have always been a passion of mine, but hockey has always been my favorite. It’s one of the reasons I began coaching the 14U team with the Janesville Youth Hockey Club this winter.

So when playoffs hit last weekend, my first trip to the postseason as a coach with Janesville, the nerves and anticipation were there.

Our team saw its fair share of ups and downs this season. We lost more than we won, our decisions weren’t always the best, we had disagreements on the bench and sometimes had to have very tough conversations about growing up and being part of a team.

Regardless, I saw the weekend as most beginning coaches do—make it to the state tournament or bust.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We were losing 6-1 to one of the top teams in the state near the end of the second period last Sunday. The winning team earned a berth in the state tournament.

Before the game one of our players read a letter to his teammates, telling them that regardless of the outcome, he loved them and wanted to thank them for being part of his time with the club.

At 14, there’s no way I would have been able to do something like that. I had tears in my eyes before the game even began.

Our team hadn’t come close to beating this opponent in games earlier this season, but it scored five straight goals to force overtime before losing in the extra period.

Walking into the locker room after a loss like that was heartbreaking.

Kids were crying, some were consoling teammates and others just sat staring blankly.

After the head coach got done speaking and turned the conversation to me, I fought tears and choked through words I never thought my competitive, win-at-all-costs personality would say.

“I could not be more proud of you guys,” I told them. “I love you guys, and 10 years from now when you’re grown up and thinking back on this season, you’re going to look back on this game and think ‘Holy cow, we did that. That was pretty awesome’.”

And as much as I wish we could’ve pulled off the comeback and advanced to the state tournament, it was a very strong reminder that kids can get a lot more out of youth sports than scoring goals and winning games.

Don’t forget that.

Benjamin Pierce is a news reporter and sports writer for The Gazette.