(I originally submitted this story without a title, until I received feedback from my professor with "Untitled" in the story line. I'm usually not that cryptic. So, the title here is one I came up with, like, 20 seconds ago. Thought you'd enjoy the spontaneity of that. Or not.
November 1, 2008.
It’s a postcard of a day on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Providence. Fiery oranges, cherry reds, and burnt siennas cling to their towering branches. Their time is near, as they wave their final goodbyes in the breeze. A powder blue ceiling hangs above the emerald green soccer pitch at the RIC Soccer Field. The air is unseasonably mild. It is a splendid autumn day.
For the Rhode Island College women's soccer team, the date on the calendar signifies something else. The alluring promise of the playoffs is often so rich that it can tasted. The post-match perspiration. The sugary lemon-lime of splashed Gatorade. The crisp, cold water that wells itself in a parched mouth.
Throughout the years, women’s soccer at RIC has experienced the joys of victory.They’ve reached the playoffs the previous four seasons. But this season is different. There will not be a postseason for the Anchorwomen. No chance for fruit-flavored showers. No celebratory water-splashing sequences. The only thing on the line on this gorgeous gift of a fall afternoon is a final shot at redemption. To offer a glimpse of what might have been. A chance to prove the cynics wrong. A chance to show that they are a team better than their abysmal 1-16-1 record indicates. As in one win in eighteen tries.
The aroma of boiled hot dogs and popcorn marinate the air. A large white posterboard with “KAYLA #4” spelled out in maroon letters flaps against the stands behind the Anchorwomen bench. Three maroon balloons dance above it. In a touching pre-game ceremony with her proud parents, the team’s lone senior, Kayla Fleming, is presented flowers for her contributions to the team during the past three seasons. As one of the team's captains, she has the added responsibility of being an on-field coach to her younger teammates. It's an understatement to say that this has been a tough season. It hasn’t yet hit her, but this will be her final game as a member of the RIC women’s soccer team. The south end stands embrace the moment with resounding applause.
“I think today will finally be their day,” said one parent. “Let’s hope so,” said another, a twinge of guarded optimism in her voice.
Just before the start of the match, the Anchorwomen, clad in their bright white home kits, gather near their bench and form a crude circle as they wrap their warms over each other’s shoulders. They raise their arms in above the circle. On the count of three, the Anchorwomen proclaim their battle cry:
THERE WAS NOTHING to shout about only three months before. They had been betrayed. Deserted. All of them. Not one was spared.
Earlier this summer, you couldn’t see the RIC practice field from Mount Pleasant Avenue. It was tucked away behind a wall of high oaks and maples that flaunted abundant green leaves. The grass matched the hue of the leaves, despite a few brown chunks of earth and some unflattering patches of crabgrass. Four bright white goal posts bookended the park.
The fall semester was two weeks away. All was quiet on campus, save for the heavy breaths gasped by an collection of young women – many barely old enough to vote - sprinting in dull maroon shorts and gray, sweat-soaked shirts across the vast field.
Nearly forty recruits had signed up to play RIC Women’s soccer team before the preseason. They love it enough to sacrifice the precious free time allowed between classes and schoolwork to devote up to twelve hours a week to play. The vast majority are freshman and sophomores, which left just enough room for three juniors and one senior. However, their love was tested on a humid late-summer morning.
I wasn’t there when it happened, though. In fact, I hadn’t interacted with any of the Anchorwomen until mid-September, when a class assignment sent me toward the RIC practice fields to interview Christina Tavana about the life of a student-athlete.
The project couldn’t have been more perfect. She told me about the challenges she faced not only as a student carrying thirteen credits, but guiding a very young team filled with freshman. Helping them both on and off the field. And telling them to keep their heads up even after the abrupt departure of their former head coach.
She spoke about the shock the entire team felt. Just before the start of preseason training, Head Coach Denis Chartier had sent a mass e-mail to his squad. He had resigned. There were no phone calls, or in-person goodbyes. Just the stark impersonalness of an electronic message.
As the only other coach on the squad, assistant head coach Jessica Knobel was flooded with e-mails, calls, and text messages from her players.
‘What's going to happen?' 'Are you going to be our next coach?' 'Who's going to coach us?'
"I was just as shocked as they were," said Coach Knobel. "But I assured them that I would be returning."
Although she announced that the college would be conducting a search for a new head coach, the uncertainty weighed heavily like the humid summer air.
“For awhile, we didn’t even know who we were going to have for a coach," said Maddie Pirri, the team’s starting goalkeeper. "We didn’t know which recruits were going to stay."
Only sixteen remained long enough for the obligatory team photo prior to the first regular season game on August 30th.
Thus began the worst season of women’s soccer in Rhode Island College history.