Monday, February 28, 2011

Just A Little Something...

The bright red numbers of the alarm clock read 5:29 am. As the last minute of sleep quickly ticked away, she envisioned how the day would go. How she hoped the day would go. When the sharp, distinct sound of the alarm rang, she rolled over, slapped the off button, and sat up. Her teammates, lying quietly next to her, did the same. The weight of what was in store for them created a somber atmosphere as they sleepily changed into the uniforms that scrawled Lady Patriots across the front. They were wearing red today.

It was still dark outside when eleven girls, all about 16 years old, trudged down the hall to the elevators that they would take downstairs to the hotel lobby. Complementary breakfasts weren’t great; they’d had hundreds of them. But they ate anyway, knowing it would be the last meal they would get for awhile, if things went well. Nobody spoke as they poured milk in their cereal, smeared cream cheese on an almost-stale bagel, or jammed waffles into a toaster. They ate quickly and quietly, rolling thoughts of the day to come around in their heads. One of them prayed.

The elevator doors slid open. Their coach stepped out, scanned the lobby full of girls, and nodded. It was a silent signal they all recognized: time to go. As they shouldered their body-size bags and headed for the doorway, their parents drove up to the hotel entrance and they loaded up.

Five minutes later, at 7 am, they arrived at the fields to the sound of clinking bats and the smack of ball against glove. Shoving their feet into cleats, they traipsed down to field 2 and set up their equipment. Two of them created a number 23 in the fence using plastic solo cups. That was his number. After a forty-five minute warm-up consisting of fielding, hitting, throwing, and running, the team lined up on the third base line. The umpire gave them a run down of the rules, flipped a coin, and announced the home team. It wasn’t them. But that was okay; they did better when they batted first. “Put ‘em in the hole quick,” their coach always said. When the ump yelled “Play ball!” that’s exactly what they did.

They won the first game by a long shot. If they kept winning, they would play back to back all day long. A landslide victory in the second game carried them into the third. Squeaking by with a score of 3-2, the girls won yet again in the third game. By the time the fourth game arrived, desperation hung in the air like a blanket over all of them. It was a record 101 degrees outside, and they were attempting to achieve the impossible. After losing every game the day before, the Patriots had to walk a tight rope; if they lost today, they were out of the tournament. It was three o’clock by the time the fifth game got underway. With a come-from-behind victory, the Patriots went on to the championship game.

Knowing how much was on the line, the girls jogged over to the next field and prepared for what would be the most exciting, invigorating game of their lives. It started off well; the Patriots were up 4-1. The cheers from the stands were uplifting. As the sun began to set, the game continued in a cat-and-mouse fashion. The Patriots would score, then the other team would score, and the cycle repeat itself.

The seventh inning: the Patriots were up 7-5, and in the field. Bases were loaded with the other team’s best hitter up to bat. There were two outs and the count was two balls, one strike. Parents bit their fingernails; the players’ legs were shaking. If this batter smacked a homerun, the game was over and the Patriots would lose. The batter ripped a hard line drive into foul territory. The suspense was intoxicating. Fear and hope all but emotionally drowned the two teams.

As the pitcher wound up and threw the pitch, the batter swung hard, and met the ball early sending it down the third base line. With reflexes like lightning, the third baseman quickly performed a backhand. The sound of ball hitting glove brought huge relief to everyone rooting for the Patriots. Now there was only the throw. With one lunge, she whipped the ball across the field to the first baseman, who caught it gracefully for the third out. The screams of the crowd deafened the players’ ears as they ran to the pitcher’s mound for a team hug. They did it; they were Pennsylvania ASA State Champions again.

The girls’ faces, wet with tears, cracked smiles so huge their cheeks began to hurt after the first three minutes. They lined up on the third baseline to receive their medals. After receiving their medals, their parents ushered them onto the field for pictures. When pictures, cheers, and congratulations were finished and they came down from high they were on, the tears they cried turned from happy to sad. He wasn’t there, and he would never be again. He would never jump in the air enthusiastically after a great play or an awesome hit. The memory of him made the moment bittersweet. They had done it with him in their hearts, but he wasn’t there to celebrate it with them. He was their coach and passed away three months earlier.

Although he was gone, his spirit lived on in the hearts of eleven girls who had achieved the impossible. They would never forget him. All sunburned faces and tired bodies, the girls gathered around the pitcher’s mound and said a small prayer in remembrance of the coach that taught them class, dignity, and sportsmanship. They were characteristics that would never be forgotten.

As she crawled into bed that night, images of the backhand, the lunge, and the throw scrolled through her mind like the film on a projector. Exhaustion blurred the images, but they were there, and they filled her with pride. She, the dark horse of the Lady Patriots Softball team, threw the last out in the most important game in Patriot’s history. To many it would seem a small, insignificant triumph. For her, it would go down as one of the top five moments in her softball career. In the dark, she smiled, and in her head replayed the game one more time.

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