PLAYING THE GAME
Ashely ground the end of her ponytail between her teeth as she stood, feet shoulders-width apart, knees bent, and field hockey stick at the ready. Her eyes targeted the opposing team’s captain, staring her down. Her own team captain, Amber, was signaling other girls on Ashely’s team, the Pimplico Pullets.
Slap! The ball was in play with a tight back-pass to Megan, who dribbled it up field, careful not to block it with her body, looking for an opportunity to pass. Ashley plotted an intercept course. A yellow-shirted girl from the opposing team, The Lovettsville Zephyrs, was pressuring Megan hard, forcing Megan to bring her stick in closer to her body. Erika pulled ahead, clearing the way for Megan’s charge. Kelly stayed open and parallel to Megan.
“She’s jamming you! Pass to me, Megan!” Kelly called.
Megan tried to pass, but the Zephyr player stripped the ball from her with slashing blow that left Megan limping and the ball bouncing across the rough grass to a waiting Zephyr player. Ashely bore down on the ball, charging through the receiving Zephyr. Ashley pivoted with the ball and stormed down the field.
“Ashley!” Yelled Kelly, panting up from behind, “Pass to me!”
Erika pulled level with Ashley.
“Hit me,” Erika called, “I’m open!”
Yellow shirts stood ringed around the Zephyr goal, sticks raised, still Ashley plowed on alone, powering her way into the striking circle.
With a sound like a pistol shot, Ashley smacked the ball in to the net for the goal. She slid over the turf with the momentum of her rush. The Zephyr goalie flung herself across the gap, missing the ball, but pinning Ashley’s left leg under the goalie’s stick with the full force and weight of her fall.
Ashley screamed in pain. It was the first game of the season and the Pimplico Pullets’ top scorer was out of the game.
Ashley was re-running that play in her head next Tuesday at practice while she sat with her blue, knee-high cast propped up on the bleachers. The pages of her open algebra textbook fluttered in the breeze beside her. Amber walked off the field, pulling two bottles of water off the table as she walked toward Ashley.
“Tough break.” She said, handing Ashley one of the bottles.
“Thanks, I’ve got one.” Ashley said, holding up a half-empty bottle of water. She and Amber used to be best friends before Amber got promoted to captain. Ashley thought that if Amber tried to pull any of that big-sister-mentor-crap on her like Ashley did on the junior players, she might puke.
“Did the doctor say how long you will be out?” Amber said. She sat next to Ashley, but a few benches higher. Her eyes were on her teammates as they practiced.
“6 to 8 weeks. It’s a fractured tibia.” Ashley answered, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“I had one of those. It hurt for weeks after the cast came off. Do you remember?” asked Amber.
“Yeah, I remember you fell when we were skiing,” said Ashley. “You limped around for a month after that.”
“And the season is only 8 weeks long, Ashley.” Amber stated firmly.
Here it comes, thought Ashley. Amber slowly stepped down the bleachers, pausing for effect.
“I’m recommending to Coach Jones that Becky take your place on the team for the rest of the season. She doesn’t score like you do,” Amber said, then she took a swig of water and shot over her shoulder, “but at least she plays with the team.”
Ashley watched Amber stalk on to the field and talk to the coach. She saw the coach glance at her and nod to Amber. Ashley’s heart sank.
“Does your cast hurt, honey?” Ashley’s mother asked when she came to pick her up from practice and looked at her daughter’s red rimmed eyes.
“No.” Ashley shrugged, “It itches a little.”
“The doctor said it might do that,” Ashley’s mother said.
Ashley fell silent.
“You know,” Ashley’s mother continued brightly, “I think this might be for the best, dear. You take field hockey too seriously. Now that you don’t have to go to practice any more, you can have more time to do other things. Won’t that be fun?”
“Like what, Mom?” Ashley exploded, “Watch reruns? Play with my dolls? I’m going to go to practice, Mom. If you don’t want to bring me home, I’ll walk!”
“I was thinking more of you doing your homework, young lady!” snapped Ashley’s mother, “You need good grades as well as field hockey to get a scholarship to college, and now you see you can’t count on field hockey!”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” Her mother said. “But you just have to make the best of it. When life gives you lemons, you have to make lemonade.”
“I’m still going to practice,” Ashley grumbled. She hated it when her mother said that stupid thing about lemons.
“And I’m still going to pick you up,” Ashley’s mother sighed, “walking 4 miles home on crutches with a cast up to your knee! I bet you would, too.”
When Ashley walked gingerly on to the practice field without her cast four weeks later, Coach Jones handed her the red shirt of the second string team. That was the team Becky came from to take Ashley’s place. The “red shirts” weren’t good enough to play in the real games. Red shirts just came to practice and hoped for a break. Ashley had never worn a red shirt in her life. She glanced at Amber and thought she would die of shame.
“Remember,” Coach Jones said as Ashley tied on the shirt, “your leg is still healing. You’ve been in a cast for over a month. Don’t expect those muscles to act like they used to. Stay in the backfield. Take it easy. Come out when you get tired.”
Ashley took up a defensive position on the far side of the field. Her face was burning as red as her shirt. She could hear Amber laughing at her. Amber hit the ball forward in the opening rush, jamming red shirted Paula, who was always wrong footed, for an easy steal by Melissa. Ashley had seen it all before. Now Melissa would take it in to the striking circle, pass to Kelly for the goal. It was like clockwork. Ashley sidled closer to Paula.
“Paula,” she whispered.
“What?” Paula flinched defensively, “I can’t help it. Amber is too good.”
“I’ve watched you play over the last month. You are as good as she is. Are you ready to prove it?” Ashley asked.
“What?” Paula asked again, disbelief on her face.
“Amber is right-handed,” Ashley explained, “so she always pulls left. I noticed it while I was on the bench for weeks. Put your stick far out to the left, and back-pass it to me.”
“What is a back-pass?” Paula asked.
Ashley showed her.
“Ready?” Ashley asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Paula said, “this time, she’s mine.”
Amber hit the ball at Paula, like before, but this time, Paula tapped it back to Ashley, who caught it and shouted, “Heads up, Julia!”
Julia caught Ashley’s pass and charged forward with Paula right beside her for a goal.
All the red shirts cheered!
After practice, Coach Jones came over to talk to Ashley.
“Great job out there today, Ashley.” She said, “You really got those girls to play their best, and didn’t try to go it alone. Those are the kind of qualities I look for in a team captain. The season is almost over now, but let’s talk about it for next year.”
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