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A Painful Memory
Ben was reading at his desk when a wad of paper hit him in the chin. The paper fell to the floor and Ben turned to glare at his classmate Loop.
Loop was laughing. He mouthed the word "goal" at Ben and looked away.
Ben reached out with his foot and snagged the paper, sweeping it toward him. He glanced at the front of the room, but the teacher hadn't noticed anything. They were supposed to be reading silently for ten minutes.
Ben picked up the paper and carefully unfolded it. He could tell that several of the kids nearby were looking at him, but Mrs. Soto seemed unaware.
He flattened the paper out on his desk and read it.
Rabbits 2, Panthers 1 Falcons 6, Bobcats 0
Ben looked over at Loop and shook his head. "No way," he mouthed.
Loop patted his chest twice and smirked. Then he nodded. He was confident and he had a right to be. The Falcons were by far the hottest soccer team in the Kickers League.
But the Bobcats--Ben's team--were pretty hot, too. They'd won four out of their last five games and qualified for the play-offs. On Thursday afternoon, they'd be facing the Falcons in the semifinals. The winner of that match would play in the championship game on Saturday.
Ben winced as he thought about the first game between the Bobcats and the Falcons. That had been several weeks ago. At that point in the season, the Falcons hadn't won a single game. But things started to click for them against the Bobcats, and the game turned into a rout. Loop and his teammate Alex did all the scoring in a 3-0 shutout.
The memory of that game had stayed with Ben ever since. He and Loop were friendly rivals in most sports and games. Loop definitely had the upper hand lately.
The Falcons had won all of their games since then, usually by big margins. Most of the players in the league thought the Falcons would end up as the champions.
Not me, Ben thought. Their season ends tomorrow.
"All right, class," said Mrs. Soto, standing at her desk. "Get ready for recess."
"Yes!" said Loop, who was always ready to play.
Ben didn't say anything, but he was relieved to be getting a break. He was a good student, but sitting still all morning made him fidgety. He couldn't wait to get outside.
Loop caught up to Ben as they walked along the hallway. "What do you think of my predictions?" he asked.
Ben rolled his eyes. "I agree that the Rabbits will probably beat the Panthers," he said. "But you're dreaming if you think you guys will shut us out again."
"We'll see who's dreaming tomorrow," Loop replied. "We've scored twenty-four goals over the past six games, and we've only given up three. How does your team compare?"
Ben did some quick addition in his head as they stepped onto the playground. In six games, the Bobcats had scored ten goals and given up nine. But if you didn't count the loss to the Falcons, the past five weeks looked pretty good.
"We never score a lot of goals," Ben said, "but we score enough to win. And we're a lot better than the last time we played you."
The other fourth-grade classes were already on the playground. Loop jogged over to the four-square courts. One of the players tossed him a ball and Loop juggled it with his thighs, bouncing it back and forth like a soccer ball.
Ben sat on the edge of a seesaw, straddling the green board and watching Loop.
Loop turned to Ben and waved his hand toward the court. "You playing?"
Ben shook his head. "Not today."
"I'm saving my energy."
Loop smiled. "It won't help. We'll thrash you tomorrow no matter how much energy you have."
You wait, Ben thought. He knew that the Bobcats had made a huge improvement over the past few games. But he also knew how good Loop's team was. They were fast and skilled, and they played a smart style of soccer. Beating them would be incredibly hard.
Ben jumped a little as the seesaw shook. He glanced over his shoulder and saw his best friend and teammate Erin pushing the other end.
"Earth to Ben," Erin said.
Ben stood carefully so the seesaw wouldn't rise up and smack him. "Thinking about tomorrow," he said.
"The big game," Erin said cheerfully. She was an excellent soccer player, but she never seemed to take the games as seriously as Ben did. He knew that he sometimes took the games too seriously, and that had caused some trouble. He'd been kicked out of one game and suspended for another. He'd worked hard on controlling his temper since then.
"I heard Loop bragging again," Erin said with a laugh.
"He was mouthing off about the game," Ben said. "Thinks they're going to beat us, like, a hundred to nothing."
"He's just trying to throw off your concentration," Erin said. "Don't let him get to you."
"He won't." Ben took the crumpled-up paper out of his pocket and showed it to Erin. "He'll eat this tomorrow after we beat them."
Erin looked at the paper. "Six-nothing?" she said.
"That's what he wrote. Come on, I need to burn off some steam. Let's shoot baskets."
They walked across the playground and Ben picked up a basketball. He dribbled a few times, then charged toward the basket and made a layup. He didn't really need to save energy--he just didn't want to listen to Loop any longer. Ben never ran out of energy.
"One-on-one?" he asked, dribbling the basketball steadily.
Erin swiped out her hand and stole the ball. "Nah," she said as she darted away. "Let's play HORSE."
Ben frowned but said, "Okay." He'd rather compete in a real game, but HORSE would do for now. "Go ahead."
Erin dribbled to the free-throw line, took one step back, and shot a jumper. The ball banked off the backboard and into the hoop.
"You didn't call a bank," Ben said. "So I don't have to."
Erin shrugged. "Bank or not, you still have to make the shot."
Ben eyed the basket, then jumped and shot. The ball rolled around the rim but fell out.
"That's an H," Erin said.
Erin did a simple layup from the right, and Ben matched it. She missed her next shot, and Ben made one.
By the time recess ended, both of them had reached H-O-R-S.
"We'll finish this tomorrow," Ben said.
"Fair enough," Erin replied. "But I get the first shot."
Ben wiped his forehead with his hand. He'd broken a sweat, which was always a good thing as far as he was concerned. He felt good now, ready for the rest of the school day. He couldn't even remember why he'd been so keyed up before recess.
But then he saw Loop and he remembered.
Soccer. Tomorrow afternoon. The play-offs.
"This is quite a sports week in our house," Ben's dad said at dinner that night.
Ben pushed a pile of string beans with his fork and stared at the chicken. He hadn't eaten anything yet. He was too nervous about tomorrow's game.
Across the table, his older brother, Larry, had a mouthful of food and was grinning as he chewed.
He won't be so hungry tomorrow night, Ben thought. Before his race.
Larry would be competing in the league cross-country championship race on Friday afternoon. He was one of the best runners on the Lincoln Junior High School team.
"Eat up, Ben," Mom said.
"I'm not hungry."
Mom set down her fork. "You're never not hungry," she said. "What's the matter?"
"He's too worked up about tomorrow," Larry said. "Listen, Ben. It's just another game."
"It's not 'just another game,'" Ben snapped. "This is the play-offs."
Larry shook his head slowly. "My coach always tells us to prepare for every race the same way."
"This isn't a race." Ben stabbed the chicken and left the fork standing straight up in it. "We're playing the best team in the league. The loser is done for the season."
"You have to focus," Larry said. "Of course you'll play harder than ever. Championship games are like that. But you'll do better if you start out by telling yourself that it's just another game."
Ben scowled and yanked the fork out of the chicken. He took a swig of milk and set down the glass. "You wouldn't say the league championship is just another race, would you?"
Larry shrugged. "That is what I'm saying. If I let myself get all nervous about it, I'd probably run badly. Staying focused and calm is the way to go."
"Easy for you to say," Ben replied. "Let's see how you feel tomorrow night. Or on Friday before the race."
Larry laughed. "You're right. It isn't easy to stay calm. But you can try. And believe me, you'll be sorry tomorrow if you don't eat. You'll be sprinting around that soccer field harder than ever, and you'll run out of fuel."
Ben scooped up a bite of chicken and shoved it into his mouth. It tasted good. Suddenly he realized how hungry he was. He ate everything on his plate and then asked for more.
Ben lay on his bed later that evening, staring at the ceiling. He thought about the first time his team had played the Falcons. Loop and his teammate Alex had made Ben look silly a few times with some very tricky fakes. He'd worked on that a lot since then--making fakes of his own and learning not to get fooled by another player's moves.
And even though the Bobcats had lost that game, Ben knew his team was nearly as good as the Falcons. They could keep the game close tomorrow. But could they beat them? He wasn't so sure about that. And if he played poorly, the game could be a blowout.
Ben's door was open, but Larry knocked on it to get his attention. "How you doing, knucklehead?" Larry said.
"I'm okay. Just nervous."
"I didn't mean to make you feel bad before," Larry said. "I just know what it's like to get so worked up before a game that you hurt your chances. The other team will be jittery, too."
"Loop doesn't get the jitters," Ben said. "He acts like they've already won the game."
"Then he'll be shocked if you guys jump out to the lead tomorrow," Larry said. "Let him think they're going to stomp on you again. Being overconfident can be even worse than being afraid."
"I'm not afraid," Ben said. "I just can't wait to get going. I want to win this game more than any I've ever played."
As soon as the final bell rang on Thursday, Ben hurried out of the classroom and out of the school. He was already wearing his soccer shirt, and he had his shorts on under his pants. His shin guards and cleats were in his backpack, so he ran all the way to the field.
He had planned to sit in the bleachers and watch the first play-off game between the Rabbits and the Panthers, but he couldn't sit still.
He kicked a ball back and forth with Erin for a few minutes, then dropped to the grass and looked up at the clouds. The air was cool and there was a light wind. A perfect day for soccer.
Once in a while, Ben heard cheering from the field, so he looked over. Usually it was the Rabbits who were cheering.
He stood near the sidelines to watch the end of the game. The Rabbits had beaten Ben's team both times they'd played. Ben knew they'd have a third meeting if the Bobcats could beat the Falcons, because the Rabbits were on their way to an easy win over the Panthers.
First things first, he thought. This semifinal would be the Bobcats' toughest test yet.
When the game ended, Ben stayed put for a minute, watching Loop and his teammates as they raced onto the field in their red jerseys. They sure looked confident.
Ben looked around at his own teammates. The Bobcats had started the season slowly, not even scoring a goal until their third game. But they'd become a solid team in the second half of the season.
We've come a long way, he thought. He swallowed hard. Could they really beat the Falcons? Or would this game be as embarrassing as the last time they'd played?
Mark and Kim were passing a ball around. Ben had had some trouble with Mark early on, but once they'd started working together on the field, they'd begun to get along off it, too. Kim was a great passer, and she and Ben had combined on a few scoring plays.
Over by the goal, Jordan and Erin were firing shots toward Shayna. Jordan had probably made the most improvement of all the Bobcats. He'd scored quite a few times.
Ben noticed that Shayna was limping a bit. He stepped over to the side of the field and nodded to Omar and Darren, who were just arriving.
"Huge game!" said Omar, raising his palm for Ben to smack it.
"You don't have to remind me," Ben said. "I haven't stopped thinking about this one since last Saturday."
Ben ran back and forth across the field a few times, then started dribbling a ball. He felt loose and excited.
Loop can think whatever he wants, Ben told himself. This is going to be a close game.
"Goalie?" Ben couldn't believe where Coach Patty had assigned him to play. This was the play-offs. Ben was a goal scorer. But Coach wanted him to start the game as goalkeeper.
"How come?" he asked.
"I think it's our best chance," Coach said, taking Ben aside from the rest of the team. "Shayna usually plays goalie for the first half, but her left ankle is sore. Let's see how she feels after playing defense for a while. She might be ready to take over as keeper later."
Ben nodded. Goalkeepers had to dart from side to side and jump a lot. A sore ankle would be a problem.
Coach smiled. "She keeps telling me she's okay, but I can tell." Shayna was Coach Patty's daughter.
"But why me?" Ben asked. There were six other Bobcats besides him and Shayna.
"The Falcons will be coming at us full force at the beginning," Coach said. "I don't want them to get a quick lead. You've done very well when you've played goalie. Don't worry--you'll play up front before long."
"Okay," Ben said.
Coach was probably right. With Loop and Alex on the front line at the start, the Falcons were likely to bombard whoever was in goal for the Bobcats. Ben had played goalie only a few times this season, and not for very long. Still, he'd stopped all but one shot.