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In the zone, p.1

In the Zone, page 1

 

In the Zone
 


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In the Zone


  CHAPTER ONE

  “Devin!” a voice boomed out of the crowd.

  I was warming up on the sidelines for the second game of the Kicks season, but I stopped my jumping jacks to scan the stands. I spotted my friend Steven waving a pair of white-and-blue pom-poms and doing a silly dance.

  I started cracking up, laughing so hard that I doubled over with my hands around my waist.

  “What’s so funny?” my friend Jessi asked.

  I couldn’t stop giggling, but I pointed with my finger.

  Jessi looked and broke out in a grin.

  “Jessi!” Cody, sitting next to Steven, called as he waved and smiled at her. But he wasn’t holding pom-poms in our team’s colors like Steven was.

  Steven had told me once that he was my biggest fan. Now I couldn’t doubt him.

  Steven, Cody, Jessi, and I all hung out together sometimes. We were all in the seventh grade at Kentville Middle School. Jessi and I weren’t allowed to date yet, but we really enjoyed spending time with the boys. Not only were they both soccer players and loved to talk about all things soccer, but Steven was super cute, and his smile was the best I’d ever seen. Totally adorable.

  “Ugh!” Emma cried out in frustration. I tore my gaze away from Steven’s antics to see what was wrong with my friend, the Kicks goalie.

  “What’s the matter?” I asked. Emma sat slumped on the grass, her knees bent and her hands tugging on her cleat laces.

  “My laces broke!” she moaned. “Ever since that growth spurt I had in the winter, my feet are in between sizes. I can’t find a pair of cleats that fit right. These are too loose. I tried pulling the laces really tight, and they ripped apart!”

  I raised an eyebrow at that. The cleats’ laces were made of this strong, stretchy fabric. Emma must have really been tugging hard to break them.

  “Here, let me see if I can knot it,” said Zoe, our resident fashionista and a whiz with all fabrics. She got onto the ground next to Emma and began fiddling with the laces.

  “The timing is awful,” Emma complained as Zoe worked. “The Rams are tough competition. I need to bring my A game. I can’t have a problem with my cleats!”

  “Don’t worry, Emma,” Frida reassured her. Not only was Frida a defender on the Kicks, but she was also an actor. She always got into character before a soccer game for motivation. “The goal is where the hidden treasure of Atlantis is buried. I am a mermaid warrior, sworn to defend it. I won’t let anyone near you!”

  Emma sighed. “I know. The Kicks have great defenders, but sometimes it’s lonely at the goal. And when a ball gets through, it’s like it’s all my fault. All eyes are on me.” She shook her head. “But I’m going to shake it all off and go out there and do my best!”

  Emma was so positive all the time. Hearing her complain a minute earlier had been strange. I was glad to see the usual, upbeat Emma return. But it made me think about how much of a burden there was on the goalie. I was a forward, and I usually got pretty focused on always looking for scoring opportunities. While I had played goalie in practice, I’d never really given much thought to what it must be like to be a goalie all the time. Standing in front of the goal, all alone, waiting for that ball to come at you, knowing you alone had to stop it—that was a lot of responsibility. And Emma was so good at it.

  “Here you go!” Zoe said as she stood up. “I did the best I can, but it might come undone.”

  “Hey, you don’t think Emma’s laces were sabotaged by the Rams, do you?” Jessi joked.

  Frida rolled her eyes, Zoe sighed, and I shook my head, while Emma just laughed.

  During the fall the Rams had played a lot of mean pranks on the Kicks to try to make us lose games. It hadn’t worked. We’d put a stop to what they were doing and had faced the Rams on the field and beat them fair and square. Jamie Quinn, the Rams captain, had been the ringleader. Because of that, I hadn’t liked her very much. But I’d gotten to know her when we’d both been on the Griffons winter league team together. We were sort of friendly now.

  In fact, she had even texted me before our last game against the Panthers.

  GLNG, she’d written, which was short for “good luck next game.” It might not have seemed like much, but for Jamie it was very warm and fuzzy.

  “Nah, I’m just kidding,” Jessi said. “Now that I know her, Jamie’s not so bad.”

  “In fact, she’s very good.” Emma shuddered. “It’s not fun to be in front of the goal when Jamie is taking a shot, let me tell you.”

  Emma was right. Jamie, and just about everyone else on the Rams, was a solid, strong player. The Kicks had faced them a few weeks before in a scrimmage and had lost.

  Today was not a scrimmage. It was a game, and we wanted to win!

  As Coach Flores called us over, I spotted my mom, dad, and little sister, Maisie, in the stands, holding a long GO KICKS! banner. I smiled as I sprinted over to Coach. Steven had a lot of competition to be my biggest fan.

  “Listen up,” Coach Flores said, a wide grin on her face. “You have all been killing it in practice. Your teamwork is on point, and your skills are improving every day, so go out there and do this!”

  “Yes, Coach!” we all yelled back. The pregame energy was building, fueling us up.

  Jamie was in the center spot as the Rams waited to receive the ball. Her long, blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she had her game face on. But she broke it just for a second to give me a wink. Then the ref blew his whistle, and the ball dropped.

  Jamie got it and kicked it to one of her teammates, but before she could get the ball, Grace, an eighth grader and my co-captain on the Kicks, swooped in and stole it. She dribbled it down the field, and I tried to shake off the Rams defenders so I could be open for her pass. I faked moving to the left but started running to the right. Soon I was in the clear and had the goal in my sights.

  “Devin!” Grace called out, and the ball came soaring to me.

  I took the ball and raced toward the goal, my heart pounding. There’s a feeling you get when the goal is in front of you and you have a clear shot. It’s hard to describe, but the exhilaration is one thing that makes me love soccer. It’s such a thrill.

  Of course, it’s more of a thrill when you make the goal, so I focused on that. The goalie was crouched and waiting, trying to figure out which direction I’d kick the ball.

  I tilted to the right, making it look like I was going to kick the ball to the left, but at the last minute I pivoted, using my left foot to kick the ball as hard as I could into the goal. Time seemed to stop for a second as the ball flew from my foot and the Rams’ goalie had to make a split-second decision: Go right or left?

  The goalie lunged to her right, but my ball bounced into the back of the net on her other side.

  The goalie and I gave shouts at the same time—hers of frustration, mine of celebration. I had made the first goal of the game!

  “Way to go, Devin!” Hailey came over and high-fived me, and Jessi ran over to give me a quick hug. We were on our way.

  That goal lit a fire under the Rams. A few minutes later Hailey had the ball and was dribbling it down the left side as two Rams charged for her. One of them stole it right out from under her and passed it to Jamie, who was waiting down the field, close to our goal.

  Frida ran out to block Jamie.

  “Who dares disturb the ancient treasure of Atlantis?” she bellowed.

  Most players were so taken by surprise by Frida’s antics that they fumbled the ball, but Jamie had nerves of steel. Plus, she had squared off against Frida before and knew what to expect.

  Unfazed, Jamie zipped around Frida and took a shot. That was when I saw Emma. She was leaning over, fiddling with her shoelace and not paying attention to the field.

  “Emma! Look alive
!” Grace yelled, but it was too late. Emma looked up just in time to see the ball flying overhead.

  The whistle blew. Score! We were tied 1–1.

  “Sorry, guys!” Emma yelled. “This darn shoelace is driving me crazy!”

  I sighed. Why had Emma’s laces had to break today, of all days?

  The Rams offense was playing an aggressive game. They weaved and dodged, and managed to shake off our defenders twice in a row. Frida’s mermaid warrior was having a hard time keeping up with the attackers of ancient Atlantis.

  Jamie had another shot lined up, but this time Emma was ready for her. She blocked the goal with a spectacular leap, catching it with the very tips of her fingers.

  Each team was playing at its best. Every time the Kicks got control of the ball, one of the Rams managed to get it away from us. But we did the same to their attackers.

  At halftime Coach gave us a pep talk. “The struggle is real,” she said. “You’ve brought your best game today. So have the Rams. But I did notice some holes in their defense that you can exploit.”

  She gave us some tips on how to bypass the Rams’ defense. She noticed that when one of our players got the ball, their defenders tended to group around that one person.

  “If you get the ball, and they come charging at you, try passing it if you can,” Coach suggested. “Then the player you pass it to should have a clear path to the goal.”

  As we raced back onto the field, Steven still had the pom-poms out and was shaking them as he chanted: “Together we stand, together we fall, all for one, and one for all!”

  Steven looked over at Cody, who was texting on his phone and not paying attention. Steven nudged him with his elbow. “One for all!” Cody halfheartedly echoed.

  I laughed, but Jessi, who was next to me, rolled her eyes.

  “It’s so cute what Steven is doing for you,” she said, sticking her lower lip out in a pout.

  I could tell that she was mad that Cody wasn’t giving the same effort for her. I felt bad, but I had to stay in the competitive zone and not worry about Jessi. We had a game to win!

  Jessi got control of the ball at the start, and just as Coach had said, three Rams defenders came charging toward her. Jessi quickly passed it to Hailey before the Rams reached her. Hailey charged forward and took a clear shot at the goal when she got close enough. We were now 2–1.

  The Rams’ coach must have been giving similar tips, because their forwards started playing a passing game on the next play, quickly passing the ball from one to another. Our defenders didn’t know where to run, and one of the Rams managed to shoot the ball past Emma, tying up the game.

  Both teams tightened up their defense in response to the goals, so we were back to square one, basically at a stalemate. One team would get control of the ball, but they’d never get far with it before the other team would take it. It was like we were playing a game of Hot Potato with a soccer ball!

  With only a few seconds left in the game, it looked like we were going into penalty kicks to determine the winner. But then I heard the Rams yelling, “Go, go, go, go, go, go!”

  Jamie had gotten control of the ball and was tearing down the field like she was on fire, with the goal in her sights. She easily outmaneuvered Giselle, one of our defenders, and had an open shot at the goal.

  My heart froze. Was Emma ready?

  I didn’t have to worry. My friend stood alert in front of the goal, her eyes laser focused on Jamie. She was watching Jamie’s every move to determine which way Jamie would kick the ball.

  Jamie was bearing down on the goal, ready to take her shot. A powerful kick sent the ball flying into the right corner, high and tight.

  Emma anticipated the shot and jumped to her left to intercept it. As she soared far into the air, she extended her leg, and her cleat, the one with the broken shoelace, went flying off. Her mouth opened wide in shock as it hit the frame of the goal and then ricocheted off. It came down on her head and bounced off. The ball whizzed past her and hit the back of the net, hard.

  The whistle blew. Emma slumped on the grass, her hands covering her face. The game was over and the Rams had won!

  CHAPTER TWO

  I lined up with the rest of the Kicks to slap hands with the Rams, like teams do at the end of every game. I glanced back at Emma. She was sitting on the grass with her legs stretched out in front of her, not moving. I’d never seen her look so upset. She didn’t even join the line with the rest of us.

  After we finished congratulating the Rams, I jogged back to the goal and reached down to Emma. She reluctantly lifted up her hands, and I pulled her up.

  “Oh my gosh, that was awful!” she said, and I saw that her eyes were tearing up a little bit. “My stupid shoe!”

  Jessi, Zoe, and Frida joined us.

  “It’s okay, Emma,” Jessi said. “It happens.”

  “The goalie’s shoe flying off and smacking her in the head?” Emma asked. “When, exactly, does that happen?”

  “Well, maybe that doesn’t happen too often,” Jessi admitted. “But goalies miss goals all the time.”

  “But we’re not supposed to. We have only one job,” Emma countered. “And this was an important game. We’ll never win the championship if we can’t beat the Rams.”

  “The loss isn’t just on you,” I told her. “We could have been stronger. The offense, I mean. We could have scored more points.”

  “And I could have done a better job defending you,” Frida added. “But those Rams—they’re tough!”

  Coach Flores blew her whistle and waved to us. I knew she wanted to go over the game with the team.

  “Come on, let’s go,” I said.

  Emma looked scared. “I can’t face everybody! Not after my shoe flew off like that. It’s so embarrassing!”

  “I bet nobody even noticed,” Zoe said. She started running and pulling Emma along with her.

  “Thanks, girls,” Coach Flores said, nodding to us. “You all played a good game today. I know it hurts to lose, but the Rams are a skilled team, and I know you played your best.”

  Coach Flores was one of those coaches who never got mad and who was always positive, no matter what. Other coaches might have barked at us for losing by one point, but not her.

  She looked at Emma. “It looks like you had an equipment malfunction,” she said. “Making sure our equipment is in good shape will guarantee that we can do our best. So try to get that problem fixed by the next practice, okay?”

  Emma nodded, not looking at anyone else on the team. “Yes, Coach. It won’t happen again.”

  Coach Flores smiled. “All right, then. Let’s shake off this loss and get focused on our next game. Go, Kicks!”

  “Go, Kicks!” we echoed, but without much enthusiasm. I could tell that everyone was bummed out by the loss.

  “Yum Yum Yogurt?” I asked in a loud voice, and a few of the girls chimed in.

  “Yeah!”

  “Sure!”

  “See you there!”

  We usually went somewhere to eat after a game, whether we were celebrating a win or comforting one another after a loss. Our parents were used to this, so we quickly figured out that my mom would drop me and my friends off at the yogurt shop, and Jessi’s dad would pick us all up.

  Before I headed out for yogurt, though, there was one thing I had to do.

  “Steven!” I called out, running toward him in the stands. He turned and smiled at me, waving the pom-poms.

  “You are too funny,” I said. “Thanks for being my personal cheerleader.”

  He grinned at me. “Sure. You’re always at my games, when you can make it.”

  Cody was standing behind Steven, and I swear I saw him roll his eyes. I guess he wasn’t into the cheerleading thing.

  “We’re going to Yum Yum. Wanna come?” I asked.

  He shook his head. “Sounds good, but I’ve got to work on that science report. I put it off till the last minute.”

  “All right, then,” I told him. “Maybe next time
. Good luck!”

  I jogged toward the parking lot, where Mom was waiting for us in front of our white minivan.

  “No Maisie and Dad?” I asked.

  “They took Dad’s car, straight from Maisie’s soccer practice,” Mom reminded me. “And good thing too, because now I can fit everybody.”

  We all piled into the Marshmallow (that was our family’s name for the minivan), and Mom drove us to the yogurt shop. I looked out the window as we rode, watching the feathery green leaves of the palm trees silhouetted against the bright blue sky.

  Less than a year before, my family had moved to Southern California from Connecticut, and we might as well have moved from another planet. It was spring now, but in Connecticut there was still snow frozen to the ground in some places, and the temperatures hadn’t climbed past 50 degrees yet. Here in California, I hadn’t seen a single snowflake all winter, and the temperature almost always hovered around 70 degrees, no matter what time of year it was.

  I missed the seasons, sometimes. My best friend, Kara, and I had just started to learn how to snowboard when I’d left. I missed the orange, yellow, and red leaves in the fall—but I didn’t miss raking them up while Maisie ran through every leaf pile I’d collected, making more work for me. And the best thing about nice weather all year—soccer all year round!

  We quickly got to Yum Yum Yogurt and piled out of the car. The place was pretty crowded for a Saturday afternoon, filled with other kids in team uniforms just like we were.

  “I see a table!” Jessi cried. She shoved some crumpled-up bills into my hand. “Devin, get me a medium chocolate with the works, please.”

  “Everything? No way. That takes too long, and I can’t do yours and mine at the same time,” I protested.

  “Fine! Just make it good!” Jessi called, making a beeline for the table.

  I got in line behind Emma, Zoe, and Frida. Some more Kicks came in and got behind us: Grace, my co-captain; her friend Anjali, who had gorgeous, shiny dark hair; and freckle-faced Hailey. She was the newest member of the Kicks, in seventh grade just like me—and she was really good.

  “Where’s Jessi?” Hailey asked.

 
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