ONLY NINETY MINUTES remained in the 2008 season. Clouds begin to mask the sun, giving the sky a milky tone. Yet, there is an energy emanating near the RIC bench. The women in white bounce against each other like numbered ping pong balls in a lottery machine. Kayla and Christina leap like kangaroos. Their feet have springs on them. It’s as if the entire field is one green trampoline. All week, the Anchorwomen talked about how much this match meant to them. Their dismal record now an afterthought. Only this game mattered. They want to close out the season with a win.
For their families. For pride. For Kayla. For themselves.
Southern Maine wins the coin toss and elects to take the ball. The opening whistle screeches and the central midfielder pushes the ball diagonally to a teammate. But within seconds, RIC intercepts the ball, and begins to dominate the run of play. The passes are crisp and accurate, as the ball obediently finds the feet of the Anchorwomen.
The Huskies struggle to keep pace with their opponents. Three navy blue players swarm upon a single Anchorwoman, while two of her teammates patiently wait unmarked nearby. The passing is fluid and graceful. One touch, then go. The outside attackers glide along the wings on their runs. Their form is melodic, like a samba beat. One player goes here, another replaces her, and another replaces her. A void is filled on the fly. Their positions interchange as smooth as satin. They are playing what the free spirited Brazilians call joga bonito – beautiful football.
But there is nothing beautiful about Southern Maine’s approach. They are like the defensive-minded Italians, and their brand of suffocating - ugly - football, or calcio as it's called in their country, is on full display. Flailing slide tackles, shirt tugging, and wayward elbows are evident signs that a team has not figured out its opponent. They kick and push around RIC’s most elusive attacker, Chelsea Creamer. After a number of shameless shoves, the fiery, dark-haired winger returns the offenses with pointed words for both the opponent and the stout, orange-and-black poloed referee who is failing to protect her. Her sharp criticisms are rewarded with a yellow card caution during the 23rd minute.
Despite the incredulous reprimand, the abused midfielder gets into another spat eleven minutes later. The Huskies are tugging her shirt to thwart her impeccably timed runs. The dark-haired winger pleads for a call against her attacker. The referee shoots her a stern look and once again warns the victim rather than the perpetrator.
“Are you serious?!?” implores Chelsea, her eyes wide and mouth gaping open in sheer disbelief.
"That is bull****!"
A second yellow card is whisked high above her head. Two yellow cards in a single match equal an automatic red card ejection. A player sent off with a red card cannot be replaced. This is not the kind of omen the hosts were hoping for. The Anchorwomen are doomed to play with only ten players for the remaining hour left in the match. They find themselves in a familiar position: backs against the wall. Goalkeeper Maddie Pirri smacks her leather mitts in disgust. Another disappointing loss appears woefully imminent.
MADDIE HAD TASTED sweet success. As a freshman goalkeeper, she backstopped the Anchorwomen to the Little East Conference semifinal and hoped the team would ride last year’s success into this season. Then, uncertainty bushwhacked the entire team.
Without a head coach, Coach Jess, with the title of “interim head coach” did her best to keep the ship afloat while the search continued. She conducted double-sessions - a two hour practice in the morning, followed by a two-hour afternoon session to prepare her charges as best as she could. She kept her players motivated throughout, despite the elephant in the room. They trained under the hot summer sun for two weeks.
“Coach Jess did what she could, and she did a great job. She had us focusing on conditioning and getting us in shape for the season,” said Maddie.
Finally, near the end of the preseason, a man with dark glasses and a maroon ball cap approached the field. A flood of whispers followed.
‘Who is that?’ ‘Is that him?’ ‘Is he our new coach?’
Mike Koperda heard the whispers. He tipped his cap to confirm the rumors that he was indeed the new head coach of the Rhode Island College Anchorwomen.
FOLLOWING CHELSEA'S EJECTION, Coach Koperda is imploring his charges to keep their heads up.
“It’s alright ladies! Dig deep! This game isn’t over!”
But the Anchorwomen are disorganized. Like a host of moths fluttering around a street lamp.
But after a brief spell of disarray, they rediscover their form, despite the disadvantage in personnel. Now, instead of doom, hope springs forth. Rays of light shine upon them. The prospect of a goal isn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when.
RIC fires up the counterattack in the 55th minute. A loose ball floats over the box. Alicia Lardaro leaps to meet the ball with her head, but a defender hauls her down before she makes contact. The referee races over to the scene, and points to the chalk circle inside the box. A penalty kick is awarded to the Anchorwomen. Because of her precise right foot, Christina Tavana is the designated penalty kick specialist. She coolly dribbles the ball and places it exactly twelve yards in front of goal.
All eyes are on Christina. Her teammates stand back the requisite ten yards. Silence fills the stadium. It is just her, the ball, and the goalkeeper. She pulls her hair back, then holds her hands on her hips, as she awaits the referee’s signal.
On cue, she leans forward. So does the keeper. On the approach, Christina whips her leg forward, the way a golfer swings his driver. A hollow thud pierces the silence. The ball screams toward the left corner of the net. The goalkeeper leaps to her right to intercept. It stings off her mitts and beyond the outside of the post. Chelsea watches from the sidelines, but knows she can do nothing.
Another bad omen.