Jerry Gladis has taken his E.C.H.O. Charter basketball teams to the state tournament every year since 2005. Their record at state: 0-0.
Gladis, who coaches both teams and drives the team bus to away games, doesn't take his student-athletes there to compete, he just wants to let them experience the state tournament atmosphere and let them watch the best teams compete on the biggest stage.
"We've been doing that since the first year, it's kind of a tradition," said Gladis, a former Tracy Scrapper and one of the most competitive people you'd ever want to meet. "The first year, we played Ellsworth and they beat us like 101-40 and they were in the tournament, so we were in the tournament guide."
There might not ever be an E.C.H.O. Rockets team playing in St. Paul in March, and you won't see a display of section or state championships on a big sign as you pull into town. At E.C.H.O., wins have always been icing, and they've been hard to come by.
The boys basketball team went 0-18 in 2005-06 - the program's inaugural season. They've won seven games since - four of them coming last year. So far this season, they're 0-4.
"Over time the losses might affect some people, but when it was all said and done, we knew when we went out there we gave it 100 percent from when the ball was tipped to the buzzer," said 2008 graduate Paul Dhoore, who now works for the city of Sioux Falls.
Dhoore came to E.C.H.O. from Redwood Falls, a much larger school in the Southwest Conference. He played ball at Redwood Falls in the seventh and eighth grades before heading to E.C.H.O., then didn't play at all his freshman year because the school hadn't started its basketball program yet. That year without basketball made him appreciate the chance to continue playing, despite the losses.
"I was more than grateful just to even have sports at the time," he said. "Just having the privilege to play was really great, otherwise we would've paired up with Granite Falls and we might not have even seen the court. At E.C.H.O. everybody got to play and it was fun."
The girls started two years after the boys. They went 3-13 their first year and have won 18 total games in five years before this season.
All told, the two teams are a combined 25-223. Both teams have been on the wrong side of their share of blowouts, but the players who went through the system don't look back at won-loss records.
Jessica Schwantes graduated from E.C.H.O. Charter in 2008. When she started playing competitive basketball there was just one senior on a Rocket roster that included some seventh-graders, and although that player had never played competitively, she could shoot and helped the younger girls like Schwantes. That's how it is at E.C.H.O.
"Jerry always told us these other teams have been playing together for so long, and you guys are scoring on them and you've only been playing for a year, so it helped us knowing we could score against them," said Schwantes, an expectant mother who is now a massage therapist in Monticello. "When I first started I couldn't even shoot one three-pointer, and when I was done that's all I could shoot."
When Schwantes looks back at her playing days she doesn't think about all the losses, she thinks about the people she met and the traits she acquired like leadership and responsibility. She admits being frustrated at times early on, but in general the team didn't make a big deal over losing.
"We were happy whether we won or lost," she said. "The biggest thing we learned was that winning isn't everything."
To be sure, E.C.H.O. Charter, a K-12 school with an enrollment south of 200, isn't the only school that's ever been on the wrong end of lopsided defeats. Earlier this month, two Indianapolis schools went at it in a game that ended 107-2. Then there was Covenant School's 100-0 squeaker in 2009 over Dallas Academy. Both of those games raised eyebrows. The winning teams were chastised for running up the score, the losers were questioned as to why they would schedule teams out of their league. Gladis hasn't had to answer such questions. While he has had a number of conversations and disagreements with parents, it always ends on a positive note.
"There have been times when I've sat kids because certain things happen on the floor and the parent will be upset, but we always sit down and talk," said Gladis. "After we get done, they know where I'm coming from. Sometimes we end up agreeing to disagree, but I've had pretty good support from the parents. Sometimes, I might go up to a parent instead of waiting for them to come to me to explain why their kid was sitting or something."
Like the kids, Gladis believes the parents have a true appreciation of what's happening at E.C.H.O. Charter, which started a little kids program (fourth- through sixth-graders) six years ago. Their teams might not have the most talented rosters, they might be a step slower than their opponents, and they might not be able to play above the rim, but they're playing.
"I think they all appreciate it," Gladis said. "Every once in awhile I see a kid with a friend on another team who would start for me and he's not even playing ball because he didn't make his team. Most bigger schools have their 10 or 12 players picked out by their freshman year and you really have to impress the coaches to make the team after that."
Not only does Gladis coach and drive the team bus, he also has to deal with scheduling games, which can be a chore. Some of the road trips can put the teams on the road for up to four hours. That said, Gladis is grateful to the area teams that keep the Rockets on their schedule every year.
"I appreciate the local teams that have kept us on their schedule when they could be playing better competition," he said. "When the Minneota boys team was at its peak they kept us on their schedule; CMCS (Central Minnesota Christian), the Dawson-Boyd girls, they could choose to put some other team on their schedule. It helps playing some of the local teams so we don't have to travel as much."
E.C.H.O. is an acronym for Every Child Has Opportunities. That's what this basketball program is about: getting kids opportunities, getting them out on the court.
What happens in the classroom ultimately is the most important aspect at any school, but opening the door to sports and competition carries plenty of weight, too, no matter what any scoreboard says.