TALLMADGE — Vince Lombardi once said, "If you can accept losing, you can’t win."
Tom Linder will undoubtedly endorse such a pointed statement.
However, forgive the longtime coach and sportscaster if he takes a considerably softer stance than the cantankerous gridiron legend.
"Yeah, we want to beat the snot out of them every time we play them," Linder said. "We don’t care who it is, but in the end, we’re cheering for the other guys."
Would the curmudgeonly Lombardi approve of such a passive attitude?
Don’t bet on it.
If you’re still tempted to think otherwise, keep in mind that the late Green Bay Packers head coach also had this rather blunt view.
"If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?"
On Saturday, a score was kept on a certain basketball court in Summit County. And since there was some basic number crunching, a winner and a loser were determined.
In this case, though, not a single soul left with much bitterness or sorrow. That’s because "The Pope" wouldn’t recommend such poor behavior. Especially if you call yourself a "cheesehead" in an industrial city located in Wisconsin.
"We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time."
As for Linder, that sounds about right.
Linder’s bunch didn’t get the prize it so anxiously coveted.
The Tallmadge wheelchair basketball team settled for its third consecutive state runner-up trophy after falling to three-time state champion Wooster 45-26. The Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio state title game took place at Tallmadge High School’s James O. Maddox Court.
It’s a safe bet that Linder, who completed his second year as the Blue Devils head coach, wasn’t whistling "Sweet Georgia Brown" after the game.
That’s because these particular "Generals" looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters.
And Wooster’s, well, not-so "clown prince" didn’t miss a trick throughout the afternoon.
Evan Heller dazzled the crowd with his electric shooting, pinpoint passing and masterful steering to lead Wooster, which did not lose a game during the winter.
The gifted senior point guard, who plans to continue his academic and basketball careers at Auburn University in Alabama, scored 19 of his game-high 27 points in the first half. He also had six rebounds and four assists.
Thanks to Heller’s theatrics, the Generals, who defeated Tallmadge four times during the season, exploded out of the gates to a 10-1 lead and didn’t look back. The Blue Devils (13-4) struggled to master Wooster’s defense, which forced a number of turnovers that led to some fast-break opportunities.
And how did Linder feel about these critical unforced errors?
The answer to this question may be a bit surprising.
Like they never existed.
"The kids are awesome," Linder said. "Every day, there are a hundred smiles. My wife said it best: ‘It might be the only sport where the fans cheer whoever makes the basket.’
"There are so many lessons you can teach kids through sports. Without a sport available to these kids, they don’t get to learn those lessons like their peers."
While Heller reigned supreme on this day, Tallmadge’s brilliantly sparkling Zoë Diamond also concluded his stellar high school career on a positive note.
He got a prestigious award too.
Isaiah Johnson, the team’s indispensable point guard, was named the APSO Athlete of the Year earlier in the day. Although he struggled with his shot against a swarm of Generals, Johnson finished with nine points and had a hand in just about every bucket his team scored.
The chiseled senior has thrived in his role as the team’s playmaker. Thanks to its superb conductor, Tallmadge’s blue-and-gold philharmonic orchestra became the epitome of refinement and impeccable style.
"Isaiah is a kid I’ve watched grow," Linder said. "He went from being a guy who wanted to come out here and score all the points to being a guy who scores most of the points but is also assisting all the other points.
"When he knows he’s matched up against a younger player, a player with less talent, he kind of gears down and plays to that level and that’s outstanding."
While Johnson was made for the spotlight, Brennan Heavilin, who led the Blue Devils with 13 points, could be considered the team’s logger or miner.
That’s because the senior forward excelled despite playing a rather unglamorous role on the team.
"Brennan just comes in, sits in the middle of the paint and gets rebounds and makes baskets," Linder said. "You know what you’re going to get from him every single day. You’re going to get hard work; you’re going to get effort. He’s going to be out there the whole time. That’s the kind of kid he is."
Scoring two points apiece for Tallmadge were senior guard Rory Murphy and eighth-grade guard Cerafina Currey.
Like Johnson and Heavilin, Murphy, who is one of the able-body players, had been with the team since its inception three years ago.
Thanks to Murphy, each member of the team had someone to watch over them.
"Rory has done an outstanding job," Linder said. "She’s one of those people who is always there for everybody else on the team."
Linder cherished every moment he spent with his highly-acclaimed senior trio. Sure, all three of them are skilled at their recently created craft. In the long run, though, Linder’s fondness for them had very little to do with putting a large orange sphere into a rather modest-sized cup.
"They’ve been here since the inception of the program," Linder said. "They’re the pioneers. They set the bar. They set the level of competition; they set the level of practice; they set the level of passion for each other and passion for the game.
"They’re all special and unique in their own way and I’m proud of all three of them. I couldn’t ask for three better people to be the face of our program."
The Blue Devils reached the state title game, thanks to a 42-20 win over Austintown Fitch earlier in the day.
Johnson and Heavilin led the way with 16 points apiece and Murphy finished with six points. Eighth-grade guard Emma Allen added four points for Tallmadge, which also featured sophomore Cory Michalec, freshman Courtney Kirsch, eighth-grader Sammy Blatt, seventh-graders Ben James and Kayden Ramser, fifth-grader Shataeya Patton, fourth-grader Iyad Yasin and second-grader Justin Steele.
The Blue Devils, who comprised seven disabled athletes, fell short in their final game of the season. Such a fact was not lost on the players when they left the court.
Fortunately, thanks to their mastery of a certain "iron discipline," Tallmadge’s gritty soldiers made an irascible two-time Super Bowl champion look like a renowned prophet.
"We would accomplish many more things if we didn’t think of them as impossible."
The Blue Devils sure didn’t.
"They get to come out here and have tears when you finish second," Linder said. "They get to have tears when you see seniors leave. These are all the things they’re fellow classmates experience in their sports every day.
"They didn’t, until three years ago, have a chance to be part of a team, to be part of a program, to wear Tallmadge colors, to get a varsity jacket. Now they do."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, email@example.com or @FrankAceto_Gannett.