“Devin? Is that you?”
I set down the huge bag of soccer balls I was carrying and turned to see Coach Flores behind me.
“Hi, Coach,” I said. “I thought I’d set up the practice field early, since it’s my turn to run practice today.”
Coach smiled at me. “Need any help? I was just doing some paperwork in my office when I heard noise in the equipment room, but I can finish up later if you want.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, but there’s not much to do. I kind of want to get my head ready too. Know what I mean?”
She nodded. “Back in the day, my mom used to bring me to the field an hour before we had to report for each game, but I didn’t mind. It helped me to calm down and focus.”
“Exactly,” I agreed.
Coach headed back to her office, and I carried the balls from the equipment room out to the Kentville Middle School soccer field. I had to admit, I was feeling pretty pumped up. First, the boys’ team was at an away game, so we got to use their practice field instead of our crummy field of weeds with garbage cans for goalposts. Second, Coach had said that the team co-captains could each run a practice this week to get leadership experience, and today was my turn. And the third reason was that I had figured out something awesome.
Our team, the Kentville Kangaroos (otherwise known as the Kicks), had a shot at making the play-offs! When I first joined the team, I never thought we had a chance. At the start of the season, we were pretty awful. We lost a bunch of games, but then we figured things out, and we got a lot better. We tied a game, and we even beat the Pinewood Panthers—a really strong team—the second time we played them. And now there was actually a chance—a small one—that we could make the play-offs. I knew if we worked hard, we could keep winning, and that made me happy. As co-captain, it was part of my job to make sure we were the best team we could be.
The afternoon sun shone down on the field, and I admired the perfectly trimmed green grass and the freshly painted white lines. I dumped out the balls and then started dribbling around the circumference of the field, just because I could.
“Hey, Devin! Don’t tire yourself out!”
I squinted and saw my friend Jessi walking onto the field. She was the first person I’d made friends with when I’d moved to Kentville a few months before, and in addition to my friend Kara back in Connecticut, Jessi was one of my best friends.
I dribbled up to her. “You’re here just in time to help me set up the cones,” I said.
She grinned. “Anything for my captain.”
“Co-captain,” I reminded her. “Anyway, I’m psyched for practice. I stayed up last night looking at some drills online. I’ve got some new stuff we can try out.”
“I don’t know. I kind of liked Grace’s last practice,” Jessi said, mentioning the eighth grader who co-captained the team with me. “Some dribbling, a scrimmage, and then done. Not too stressful.”
“Well, I’ve got some defensive drills for us,” I told her. “I know we beat the Panthers last time, but they had way too many scoring attempts in that game. I found a couple of drills that I think are really going to make our blocking and intercepting skills better.”
“Whoa, you’re totally taking this seriously,” Jessi said.
“Well, I found something out,” I said. “After we beat the Panthers, I checked the stats in our division. The Panthers and the Vipers are pretty much guaranteed play-off spots. But the third and fourth places are open. If we keep winning, we could get one of those slots.”
Jessi raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? The Kicks? In the play-offs?”
I nodded. “It could happen.”
Jessi grinned. “Then bring it on!”
“I will,” I promised. “Come on. Let’s go get those cones.”
We set up the cones to form two squares on the field for the first drill I had in mind. A few minutes later the other players started showing up. Emma and Zoe walked over to me and Jessi as we finished setting up. The two of them were good friends but they were also pretty opposite. Emma was tall and tan and athletic, and she could be a total klutz on the field unless she was in goal. Zoe was petite with short strawberry-blond hair, and she was super-agile and sure on her feet. She’d been playing forward a lot recently because she had this way of zigzagging through the other team’s defenders and getting right to the goal.
“Yay! It’s Devin’s practice day!” Emma cheered.
“I found some new drills we can try,” I said.
“Devin says we can make the play-offs if we keep winning games,” Jessi reported.
Zoe cocked her head. “Us? Really?”
I laughed. “Why does everyone keep saying that? It’s not impossible.”
Jessi patted me on the back. “Well, we can dream.”
“To dream the impossible dream!”
We all turned at the sound of someone singing in an operatic voice. It was Frida, of course. Besides playing soccer, she was a total drama nut.
“Bravo! Bravo!” Emma cried, clapping.
“Actually, it’s ‘brava’ when it’s a girl,” Frida corrected. “But thank you.” She took a little bow.
Coach Flores blew the whistle, which meant it was time for practice to start. We ran to join the rest of the Kicks, and I was surprised to notice that it seemed not all the girls were there. I did a quick count—there were twelve of us, but there should have been nineteen.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
Coach shrugged. “They must be running late. But go ahead and start, Devin.”
I nodded. “Okay. Let’s do some stretches to warm up.”
I led everyone in stretches, and then we ran around the field once to get our hearts pumping. As I ran, I made a mental list of everyone who was missing—three seventh graders and four eighth graders, including Grace. It was kind of weird.
The missing players still hadn’t showed up when we were done running, so I went ahead and started the first drill.
“Okay!” I told everyone. “So this first drill is a variation on Monkey in the Middle. There are a few ways to do it, but we’re going to focus on our intercepting skills.”
I counted down the line of players, “One, two, one, two,” until everyone had a number. “Okay, ones, please form a circle inside that square we’ve marked out with cones. Twos, form a circle inside the other square.”
My teammates formed the circles quickly, and then I pulled out two girls from each circle to stand in the
middle—Brianna and Taylor in one circle, and Frida and Jade in the other.
“Okay. Here’s how this works,” I said. “Girls on the outside, you’re playing offense. Your goal is to keep passing the ball to one another for as long as you can. Girls on the inside, you’re defense. Your goal is to intercept or block the passes between the offensive players. If you succeed, the offensive player who made the pass has to switch places with you.”
I threw a ball to each circle. “Ready, go!”
Emma made the first kick in her circle, and it flew right over Brianna’s head.
“Whoops!” Emma cried.
“Got it!” Maya, an eighth grader who usually played midfielder, stopped the ball with her knee and sent it skidding across the circle, low but fast. This time Brianna stopped the ball with her foot. Then she and Maya switched places.
Both circles got the hang of it really quickly, and Coach Flores helped me out by giving pointers to the girls trying to defend. After a few minutes you could start to see what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses were. Jade, an eighth grade defender, easily intercepted the first pass that came at her. Zoe, who was a strong offensive player when she was dribbling, was having trouble passing to players across the circle. She just didn’t have enough power behind her kicks. And Frida was stuck in the middle for a long time. She couldn’t get where she needed to be in
time. But I knew that everyone was trying their hardest.
“Great job!” I called after we had played for about twenty minutes. “Let’s clear the cones.”
“Hey, there’s Grace!” Brianna called out.
I turned and saw Grace and the rest of the missing girls walking onto the field. They looked puzzled to see us practicing.
I jogged up to Grace.
“Did you guys start already?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, about a half hour ago.”
She frowned. “But Coach Flores e-mailed that practice was starting late today.”
Coach Flores had overheard. “I didn’t do that. Are you sure it was from me?”
Grace and the other girls nodded.
“It came from your e-mail address,” said Sarah.
Coach shook her head. “That is so strange. Maybe it was an old e-mail that you saw? That happens sometimes. An old e-mail pops up out of nowhere.”
“Like it was stuck in limbo or something,” Emma added.
“Well, sorry you guys missed the first drill, but we’re about to do another one,” I said. “Do you want to warm up first?”
“Just give us a minute to stretch,” Grace replied.
I was feeling a little impatient, but I didn’t show it. “We might as well all stretch!”
After a few more minutes of stretching, I clapped my hands, eager to start the next drill.
“It’s time for a shoot-out! Emma, take the goal!”
Emma was kind of all over the place when she was on the field, but I’d discovered that she made an excellent goalie. She jogged over to the goal, and I got the other players to line up in two lines, with the first person in line facing the goal—one line on the right, and one line on the left.
“This one is fast and furious,” I said. “Emma will start out as goalie. First player on the right will take a shot at the goal and then run to the back of the line. Then a player on the left will take a shot. Keep going until everyone has a turn, and then we’ll switch goalies.”
Giselle, an eighth grader with curly blond hair, looked at me with wide eyes. “You mean we all have to take the goal?”
“On a well-rounded team, everybody needs to know how to play every position,” I told her. I knew that sounded kind of preachy, but I had done a lot of reading about coaching over the past few days to prep for this, and that idea had come up a lot. Giselle didn’t look too happy, but I wasn’t going to change the practice. We had to make sure we had a good backup goalie in case Emma couldn’t play in a game.
“Ready, go!” I yelled once we were set up. Jessi ran up to make the first kick.
Wham! She sent the ball flying high and fast, and Emma had to jump up to block it. She slammed it down just as the next ball came whizzing past her feet.
Emma proved what a great goalie she was, because the pace was intense and she blocked more balls than she let get past her. When we came to the end of the line, I sent Jessi into the goal. She got into it with more energy than I had ever seen, diving and jumping.
Just like with the first drill, it became pretty clear what the players’ strengths were, and who had goalkeeping in their blood. Sarah, a seventh grader, was really fast and kept her eye on the ball. And Zarine, who was in eighth grade and usually played midfield, made this amazing save where she jumped sideways to catch the ball in midair and then landed by somersaulting on the grass.
“Your turn, Devin!” Jessi called out when the last girl had taken her turn.
“Oh, yeah. Of course!” I replied, running to take my place. Just because I was running the practice didn’t mean I couldn’t participate in the drill.
I slipped on the goalie gloves and got ready for the onslaught. I didn’t have to wait long.
Wham! Brianna sent a ball sailing past my head.
“I wasn’t ready!” I protested.
“A goalie always needs to be ready!” Emma yelled back, laughing, and I knew she was right. I narrowed my eyes and waited for the next ball. Grace kicked it, and it came speeding across the grass, low and fast, aimed for the lower right corner of the goal. I dove for it, skidded across the grass, and blocked it just in time.
No sooner was I back on my feet than Sarah launched the next ball into the air, and I raced across the goal to stop it.
Wow, this is a pretty tough drill, I realized, but I didn’t let on. I gave every shot my best, and managed to block about half of them. After the last shot blew past me, I jogged up to Emma.
“Have I told you lately what an awesome goalie you are?” I asked, breathing hard. “That is hard work.”
Emma grinned. “Yeah, but I love it,” she said. “Although, some nights I dream that soccer balls are flying past my head—like, thousands of them—and I can’t stop them.”
I nodded. “I can see why,” I said, and then I turned to the rest of the team. “Okay, let’s scrimmage! I’ll count off teams.”
We had all nineteen girls now, including me, so I put nine people on a team and I coached from the sideline. Since Zarine had done so well in the last drill, I put her in goal for her team. She seemed a little nervous at first, but I could see her get more comfortable with it as the scrimmage went on.
It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when Coach Flores tapped me on the shoulder.
“Devin, we should end the game,” she said. “Great practice.”
“Already?” I asked. “I was hoping to do one more quick drill at the end.”
Coach nodded toward the parking lot, where some parents were already waiting in cars. “We’re running a little late already. Sorry.”
“More drills? You really are a drill sergeant,” Jessi teased. “I, for one, am ready for a shower and some dinner.”
“Admit it. It was fun,” I said.
Frida walked up to us, her hands on her hips. “Fun and exhausting,” she said.
After we put the equipment away, Jessi, Emma, Zoe, Frida, and I walked toward the parking lot.
“Hey, I wanted to tell you guys,” Frida said. “So, you know how my mom made me play soccer? Well, she’s so happy that I am putting my ‘best effort’ into it, as she says, that she signed me up for a weekly acting class. Isn’t that great? I start tomorrow.”
“That sounds perfect for you,” Emma agreed.
“It’s a win-win,” Frida said. “I ended up liking soccer, and now I get to keep acting, too.”
I wasn’t so sure. “You start tomorrow? Couldn’t it wait until after soccer season? What if it interferes with your practice?”
“Relax, Devin,” Frida said. “It’s only one day a week, when we don’t have practice.”
“In Devin’s perfect world every day would be a practice day,” Jessi teased. “Practice after breakfast, practice during lunch break . . .”
“Midnight practice,” Emma joined in. “And sunrise practice.”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” I said, laughing. “I’m happy for you, Frida. Seriously.”
“Be happy for me once my mom lets me start auditioning again,” Frida said. “Shawna Young from my old acting class just got a part on a TV show, and I know I’m a better actor than she is.”
Just then my mom’s car pulled up, so I waved to my friends. “Got to go. See you tomorrow.”
I ran to the car, and when I opened the door, really loud pop music blared out. In the backseat my sister Maisie was bopping up and down.
“Seriously, does it have to be this loud?” I asked.
“Yes, it does!” Maisie yelled from the back.
Mom turned the sound down a little bit. “How did practice go?” she asked.
“Great,” I replied. “I didn’t get to do all the drills I wanted, but the ones we did were really good.”
“Of course they were,” Mom said. “That’s my dedicated Devin.”
“Turn it up!” Maisie yelled.
Everyone said that Maisie and I looked alike, and I guessed we did, because we both had brown eyes and straight brown hair, although Maisie’s was shorter than mine. But just because we looked alike didn’t mean we were alike. I was a pretty chill person (well, except on the soccer field), and Maisie was like an eight-year-old tornado.
“Maisie, please use your car voice,” Mom scolded, and I quickly dug my earbuds out of my duffel bag and turned
on my own music so I could make it home without going crazy.
Once we got home, I quickly showered and then turned on my laptop in my bedroom. After Kara’s last visit we’d decided to do a webcam chat once a day if we could, so we could see each other’s faces. But sometimes it was hard to find the right time because it was always three hours later in Connecticut.
“Devin!” Kara cried happily when her face popped up on my screen. The webcam was amazing because I could see every freckle on Kara’s face.
“Hey!” I said. “What’s up?”
“Still dreaming about my weekend in California with you,” she answered. “It’s amazing there! It’s so sunny and beautiful. And I still can’t believe that we actually went to Hollywood. And how close you are to Disneyland! It must be like being on vacation all the time.”
“It kind of felt like that at first,” I admitted. “But now it’s like, you know, life. Like, tonight I have a ton of homework.”
“I did too,” Kara said, making a face. “But I just finished. High-five!”
She held her palm up in front of the camera, and I did the same. Kara cracked me up sometimes.
“Oh, hey,” I said. “I have been dying to tell you something all day. I just figured out that the Kicks might have a chance at the play-offs—if we focus. Can you believe that? After those losses we had in the beginning.”
“That’s awesome,” Kara said. “Focusing is good. Although, I don’t know how you can focus with that guy Steven staring at you the whole time.”
I blushed. “What?” I asked, but I knew what she meant.
“Steven, that guy with the spiky hair,” Kara replied. “When I saw you in that game against the Panthers, he sat near us, and I swear he was staring at you the whole entire game.”
“He was not,” I protested.
“He’s cute!” Kara said. “I wish somebody that cute would stare at me.”
“Fine, he’s cute,” I admitted. “But I can’t think about stuff like that right now. I need to focus on school and on the Kicks until the season is over.”
“Maybe Steven is thinking about you right now,” Kara teased. “Devin and Steven. It kind of rhymes.”
Then she began to sing, “Devin and Steven. Devin and Steven—”
“No distractions!” I yelled, and then we both collapsed into giggles.
Every time I talked to Kara, I realized how much I missed her. The webcam was nice, but it was just not the same as being with her in person. Sometimes I daydreamed that Kara and her family moved out to California and she joined the Kicks. If that could have happened, I thought my life would have been pretty perfect!