Thursday, December 25, 2008

Growing Pains: The Story of the 2008 Anchorwomen (Part 3 of 3)

LATE SUMMER HAD given way to early fall and the warm air stayed along for the ride. Due to a curious scheduling oddity, the Anchorwomen were faced with seven consecutive road games to begin the season. A steep challenge for any squad, nevermind one with new players and a new head coach. After trading results at the St. John Fisher Tournament in upstate New York, they promptly dropped their next five matches in embarrassing fashion. Zero-four to Johnson & Wales; 0-5 to Babson; 0-1 to Roger Williams; and 0-6 to Wheaton. They finally scored a goal against Salve Regina, but nevertheless, lost 1-2.

And on it went. The losses accumulated like the autumn leaves. The season became as bleak as the stark gray bark on the barren oaks and maples. Fall was not kind to the Anchorwomen. The win column would starve for another ten matches. By All Hallow's Eve, their record sank to an embarrassing 1-15-1. One victory. Fifteen losses. One draw. It wasn’t pretty to watch.

Nevertheless, I stayed in contact with Christina well after my assignment was handed in. As a soccer fan, I had never witnessed the struggles the Anchorwomen had endured. I felt for them, and because of their plight, pulled for them even more. I offered them encouragement for efforts. Even after the humiliating four and five-goal losses, Christina remained upbeat.

“I think we’re progressing from the first game," she said. "We’re getting better.”

CHRISTINA IS AFFORDED another shot at redemption in the 62nd minute. This time, it’s thirty yards out, and off to the right, rather than right in front of the goal. As the team’s dead ball specialist, it’s her job to guide a free kick to an attacking teammate, or depending upon one's precision, right into the net. She runs up to the ball. It explodes off her right foot and sails toward the right corner once again. It catches the keeper’s mitts again, but this time, the ball falls over the line and into the goal. Christina trots toward her position with muted enthusiasm. Her teammates race to catch up to offer high fives and pats on the back. The game is far from over. She gingerly jogs back to center circle, rests her hands on her knees, and awaits the restart looking as if she had already forgotten the goal.

After the goal, Southern Maine is astonishingly static. Lethargic, even. They need a score to pull even, but they lack the energy to acquire the equalizer. Conversely, the Anchorwomen reclaim their voracious appetite for another goal, and continue to press forward, putting the navy blue backs at will back on their heels - literally. The young women in white evoke images of Los Galacticos - The Stars - of Real Madrid and their dazzling corps of football artists. Christina is the illustrious Raul, whose speed and awareness amazingly place him and the ball dangerously close to goal in the clutch. Kayla is the tough, but intelligent Sergio Ramos, a player who refuses to let any onrushing attacker get through. Maddie is the acrobatic Iker Casillas, a young, but battle-tested keeper whose hands naturally gravitate to meet the ball.

With the stopwatch at 71 minutes, the Anchorwomen fire up another counterattack. Kayla takes the ball near the right flank and defers it to Christina. The pony-tailed playmaker settles it with her left, then abruptly shifts it to her right, takes another touch, and chips a shot from twenty yards that skips off the keeper’s mitts again. It escapes her grasp and flies off the inside of the right post. The ball falls right onto the goal line. The keeper jumps back to recover it, but an advancing Brittney Caldwell beats her to it, and punches the uncorralled ball into the net for the insurance goal. A sudden, but resounding "YEAH!" leaps from the bleachers. Two-nil, Anchorwomen.

HOW WOULD YOU define perseverance?

The evening before the final collegiate soccer game she’d ever play, I posed this question to Kayla, whose large dimples are never hidden due to an omnipresent smile. The sun was setting, giving away to a beautifully-painted crimson sky. The team had just concluded its last training session of the season at the RIC Soccer Stadium. She giggled at the question, as of we were plain game of “Truth or Dare.”

She hesitated.

“Sticking…with it, and not giving up. The season’s been tough, but I’ve never thought about giving up on it.”

I tossed the same question to Maddie.

She shot me a look as if I had asked her what the capital of Kazakhstan was.

“What the hell does that mean?”

I half-apologized for asking such an abstract question.

“Obviously, we struggled. It was very frustrating. I’d definitely say that this season has been frustrating. We had a lot of bad luck. We definitely should have won a lot more games.”

Indeed, for all the embarrassing losses, there were many one-goal games when the Anchorwomen came enticingly close to victory, only to fall short. Offside by a nose. A finishing pass that arrived a split second early. The posts were clanked with alarming regularity, as if bonus points were awarded for such dubious feats. Despite their luck, or lack thereof, their efforts never wavered.

“We all tried as hard as we could. We played with all our hearts.”

A gap of silence temporarily fell between us. Her chestnut brown eyes peered toward the horizon.

“I feel like we’re gonna get a win against Southern Maine tomorrow. I’m definitely excited.”

FOR ONCE, THE pressure is not square on the shoulders Anchorwomen. There is no late-game deficit. Instead, they are ahead. Winning. But their emotions remain guarded. They anticipate a furious reply. But even after the second goal, the Huskies look dead, like zombies. It’s as if their legs are chained to anchors. And that is just fine with the Anchorwomen. While RIC plays a spirited game of keep away, the minutes roll off the scoreboard. 75 minutes…80 minutes…85 minutes…

Finally, with two minutes remaining, the guests shake off their heavy harnesses. White orbs fly toward the RIC goal. Maddie is tested on three consecutive rapid-fire shots. She parries each one away with ease. With a minute remaining, it becomes elementary: owning a two goal advantage, the Anchorwomen will win this game. The seconds on the scoreboard slowly tick by, as if it were underwater. Maddie sends a line drive kick high above center circle. The crowd bubbles with enthusiasm. The final horn joyfully blares.

The spectators jump to their feet, clapping their hands loudly, whistling and shouting praise.



The Anchorwomen have claimed sweet victory.

The women in white trade handshakes, high fives and hugs. Moments later, they come together, lock hands, form a long 20-player-wide line. It clumsily, yet joyfully, bounces toward the RIC faithful. Yards before their supporters, they bow in unison. A “thank you” to their parents, friends, and former teammates in attendance. The partisan crowd erupts. The moment belongs to them. All of them.

After returning to the bench and gathering their equipment for the final time this season, the victors exit the pitch. Wisecracks, laughs, and smiles abound for the Anchorwomen.

Kayla, the steady senior who kept an even keel throughout, slaps me a high five. I ask her if the finality of her soccer career has hit her yet.

“It did a little right after the whistle. I may have teared up a bit,” she says, with a gleeful laugh, as if she were afraid to admit it. “But the fact of the matter is that we FINALLY won!”

For the first time all season, the postgame scene on Mount Pleasant Avenue is bathed in praise and cheers. They wanted it so badly. They played beautifully. In the distance, the maroon and white scoreboard flashes the result: 2-0.

They did it.

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