Their form looked fluid, releases clean. Shooting elbows at a perfect 90 degrees, shoulders squared, knees bent, wrists flicked. The shots arced perfectly. All that was missing was the result.
On Thursday afternoon, Tokay High School guards Trevor Mabalon and Matt Komatsu were recruited by News-Sentinel staff to go head-to-head at the Grape Festival's free-throw shooting booth.
Heading into the contest, all signs pointed to a rout in favor of Komatsu, whom both varsity players declared to be the superior free-throw shooter. Mabalon didn't even protest at the notion, pointing to his teammate without a second thought.
But on Thursday, neither one could claim an advantage in this best-of-three; both carnival hoops proved unkind, and the playful competition ended in a 0-0 standstill.
Back rim, front iron, off the backboard — their shots landed anywhere but inside that unforgiving hoop. The sympathetic booth operator, sensing Komatsu and Mabalon's frustration, offered each a pair of extra shots — but the result was the same.
No "swish," not even a friendly shooter's bounce.
How could it be? The basketballs, inspected and determined to be standard NBA size, were not to blame. Nor was there a frenzied opposing crowd behind the hoop. Was the carny's bright aqua uniform a distraction? Or the stuffed Stewie Griffin dolls hanging as prizes that neither shooter could claim?
No, the Tiger players would settle on a different culprit.
"The rim wasn't regulation," Komatsu said, as Mabalon nodded in agreement.
Defeated but not discouraged, both brave competitors took it all in stride. They resolved to hit the gym for free-throw practice following their less-than-stellar performances. Both seemed thankful no coaches or teammates were on hand to see.
"That was embarrassing," Mabalon said with a chuckle.
Their counterparts from Lodi High's softball squad didn't fare much better in a different, deceptively simple game.
Flames junior pitcher Stephanie Magana is used to hurling a softball 60 feet towards the plate.
Her task at Thursday's festival before heading to an afternoon practice? Tossing a ball underhand into a tilted plastic red bin ... from less than a foot away.
Much like at the previous booth, the attempts came up empty.
Her high-arcing throws hit nearly every part of the bin but refused to stay in. Each one ended up on the fairground grass after bouncing out emphatically.
Magana's teammate, first baseman Bree Spradling, suffered a similar fate in her four tosses. Surely, their athletic background prepared them for this game — right?
"It's really nothing like softball," Magana said. "They make it really challenging."
It begged the question: Can this carnival game really be won? Even the booth operator, ostensibly a professional, couldn't convert one successful attempt.
"I've seen someone do it," Spradling said.
Contact reporter Ed Yevelev at firstname.lastname@example.org.