I raised my hand to shield my eyes from the blazing sun at the Oceanside 2018 Labor Day Tournament. Halftime was almost over, and we were losing 0-2 against the Oceanside Orange Crush. I was playing left mid field and watching the game hopelessly from the sidelines. Never had I felt so lethargic, listless and useless. The game was going on mostly to the right, which meant I had to stand on the other side of the field looking, I was sure, like a complete and utter idiot.
Just when I felt like I was going to die of boredom, the ball hurtled like a rogue rocket toward me. My head snapped to attention so fast that my neck seemed to creak in protest as I wheeled around to intercept the soccer ball. I stopped it with one foot and turned.
Wham! A bowling ball of flesh in an orange jersey knocked me to the ground. Wump! The breath was wrestled out of my mouth and my eyes felt like they were shooting sparks.
“Sorry,” my attacker grunted in my general direction. The ball was out of bounds. Again.
Our team stumbled through the rest of the game. When it ended, all of us trudged back to Coach Harlon dejectedly, heads bowed from the bitter sting of defeat. The other team’s lurid smiles, high-fives and unnecessarily loud cheers felt like a sharp slap to my face. Their smug faces leered at us as if to say, “You lost and we won.” Only our coach seemed to maintain a facade of stoic, cool indifference.
He started off by asking us how we thought we played. There was no taunting or disappointed edge to his voice. It was a plain, placid question. Some of us shrugged spiritlessly.
Sensing our disquiet, he asked one of us, “Madison, what did you think?”
Madison seemed reluctant to look up from her shoes.
“I think we did…not good.” Seeing our coach’s unsatisfied expression, she added quickly, “Because we lost.” Several of us murmured in agreement.
“Well, how could you improve?” He asked, without missing a beat. Some of us mumbled, “Dunno”.
“A lot of you were bunched up,” he continued. “People were abandoning their positions, giving the other team open lanes and more opportunities.”
Our breath hitched collectively, as his eyes lingered on each and every one of us. All I could think was, Please don’t be talking about me.
He didn’t. He went on his own track. “You have to trust each other. You have to work together as a real team, not like maniacs running towards to the ball.”
His comment was harsh, but spot on. We panicked, and were simply chasing the ball aimlessly, and got totally worn out.
The second game was against HLSC Blue Tornadoes. The heat and humidity was suffocating. With the coach’s words ringing in our ears, we walked on to the field.
I was a midfielder again. I told myself, “Every ball that came to me from my team was a symbol of trust, and I got to prove that I am worthy of it.”
Here came my opportunity. Kay passed the ball to me. I could feel eyes like gun barrels on me as the ball came into my possession. The heavy weight of responsibility seemed to settle on my shoulders.
At the same time, a couple of Tornadoes closed in on me like storm clouds. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Matea backing against the boundary line, open and unmarked. I passed out wide to her. Instantly, I knew I had made the right decision. She took the ball and ran with it, feet beating against the grass. I stared at her, eyes burning and a spark of hope pulsing inside me. She can do it.
She streaked down the field in lightning speed and passed to Jaden, who sprinted to the left end of the field with the ball. With a swift turn, she managed to pass the ball to Sarah, who was right in the middle of the box. The cross had enabled Sarah to surge forward and punt the ball into the goal.
Our team erupted in jubilant cheers. High-fives were exchanged as we paraded back across the halfway line. Smiles were coming back to our faces, and with more confidence, we marched on.
Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!
The sharp whistle blew, signaling the end of the game. We bounded back to the bench with a new bounce in our step. Coach Harlon let us bask in our victory for about four seconds before launching headfirst into detailed critique.
“Some of you made careless errors. We had an opening to goal, but the ball missed the goal entirely. And, you need to remember that making a blind pass means turning over a goal. But,” he paused, meeting all of our eyes. “You trusted each other to make the right decisions. You were patient, holding your own positions. We found our team’s dynamic, and that led to our win. There is definite room for overall improvement, but well done, girls. Well done.”
It felt good to hear that from the coach, but the euphoria didn’t last long. Soon, my stomach began to rumble. We had already been on the field for four hours, and I was famished. Mom rushed us straight from my piano lesson to the tournament, and the only thing I got for lunch was a small sandwich in the car—and that was almost five hours ago.
Mom bought a hot dog from a food stand. Swallowing it down, I could feel energy rushing back into my veins, and the warm flare it created inside me.
“Who are we playing against next?” I asked Mom.
“The Massapequa Eliminators,” she answered.
Really? I thought, the Eliminators?
“If you win this game, you’ll get at least second place,” she said. “Maybe even first place.”
Suddenly, victory felt so close that I could touch it. This was our last chance.
When the third game started the sun faded, yielding a cool breeze. We fought really hard, but so did the Eliminators. Every pass was a hard-won battle, but we moved forward closer and closer to their box.
Jaden, our striker, finally made her way in front of their goal. A gargantuan opponent stormed over, rammed her with such force that she shot into the air like a human cannonball and hit the ground. Luckily, she was uninjured.
Unfortunately for them, that earned us a penalty shot. When the referee blew the whistle, everyone tensed not daring to move a muscle. Their goalie crouched, brow knit, shoulders squared and bracing for the shot to come. Her eyes were locked on the ball. The wind had stopped, as if the air itself was holding its breath. Jaden kicked. Time was suspended in oblivion as the ball sailed into the goal, punching the net. The goalie lunged, but it was too late. The parents on the sideline cheered.
The penalty goal was all it took to light a flame that evolved into a wildfire, an unstoppable succession of goals. We were moving like one. We were much more assured of ourselves, knowing that there were eight other teammates to back each of us up.
A graceful, almost surreal system of passes were made from then on, each a move designed to seep through the cracks in the other team’s defense. It was more than technical merit of the game, I thought in awe, and more like the making of a ladder, working to get to the top with every push.
Slowly but surely, we inched toward the other team’s goal, hitting a collective rhythm. Cover, backup, balance, pass, dodge and receive. We streaked down the field like a shower of lightning bolts. The amount of the other team’s players seemed to dwindle down and down, and finally our striker, Jaden, got the ball and she kicked with full force through a clear and perfect opening from the left. The ball shot into the net.
When the final whistle blew, I looked up in surprise. Day light was gone—the sky was a canvas of pink, luminous clouds, and the twilight was in full bloom, winking at us from above. Time flew.
We waited anxiously for the final score. A big scoreboard was set up with us gathering around to watch the points being tallied up. Just when I thought that I could wait no longer, a man climbed up on stage. Chatter died down, and everyone’s head swiveled toward him.
“I would like to congratulate the Massapequa Eliminators for being second place,” he said.
My nails dug into my palms, and my heart was doing jumping jacks. Could this be it?
“And, the first place goes to the Great Neck Green Storm,” he announced.
Hurray! We did it.
Ragged with exhaustion but beaming, the team lined up to receive the gold medals. With tiny white flickers of the cameras flashing in the crowd, we smiled with enough happiness to light up the night sky.
Joy Wei is a sixth grader at Great Neck North Middle School.