Authors: Matt Christopher,The #1 Sports Writer For Kids
Tags: #JUV028000, #General Fiction
The lightning quick move surprised the Sox goalie. The ball sailed into the net, giving the Cougars an early lead.
As the crowd cheered, Mac smiled. A lot of people thought that Dougie was just lucky. Mac knew better. Dougie had an incredible sense of timing, combined with an ability to keep track of everything that was going on around him. It was no wonder he was the team’s leading scorer.
As the two teams gathered back at the center of the field for the next kickoff, Mac could hear Jimmy Palumbo shouting, “Dougie does it! Dougie does it! Go, you Cougars!”
Listening to him suddenly made Mac wonder if he’d been right to put Jimmy at the top of his suspect list. He sure didn’t sound like a guy whose loyalty was with another team.
But the evidence …
Mac didn’t have time to spend thinking about Jimmy. After a brief spell down at the other goal, the action moved toward him. The Cougars’ offensive line had let up enough for the Blue Sox to gain control of the ball. They brought it down toward Mac with a lot more precision than he’d expected.
This was definitely no second-rate team, he realized.
At the same time, he could tell that the Cougars’ defense wasn’t quite ready for what was taking place. Within moments, only Mac and Billy stood between the Blue Sox and a goal.
“Position! Position, Billy, come on, watch your position! Billy, stay on top of him! Heads up!” he called from the back of the penalty zone.
A Blue Sox forward dodged around Billy and booted the ball toward the goal. It was a long shot, but it came close. Mac leaped and just managed to deflect it before it went into the net.
Lucky the old springs are working, Mac said to himself as he got back his balance. But I sure could use a little help! What’s up with Billy?
The deflected ball bounced off Billy’s shoulder and tumbled back to the ground near a Blue Sox forward. A battle for control went on and on as others joined in and the struggle became more heated.
The referee’s whistle signaled a foul.
The call was on the Cougars. It seemed that in his determination to get the ball, Billy had grabbed hold of the forward’s shirt and held on to him. It was a major violation, and there would be a direct free kick.
“Aw, jeez, Billy,” Mac groaned. “Okay, Cougars, let’s not let that mistake ruin our lead. Come on, line up!”
The Cougars had practiced forming a wall against such penalty kicks. It was time to put that practice into operation. Mac’s job now was to see that they were exactly where he needed them to be.
Although the Cougars stood shoulder to shoulder, there was still plenty of clearance where the ball might go in. A lot depended on the skill of the Blue Sox kicker. And ultimately, it was up to Mac to be in the right spot at the right time.
He ranged behind them, lining them up, softly whispering his directions.
“A little to the left. Open up just an inch or so. That’s it, that’s it. Okay,” he murmured.
Suddenly it was happening.
The kick was in the air. It wasn’t a very good kick and missed the opening by quite a distance. Simply standing there, Mickey took it on his kneecap before it ricocheted forward. Mac didn’t even get to see the ball before play resumed.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he went back to defending the goal area. The ball was still in Cougar territory, and the threat wasn’t over.
Both teams were playing a sloppy game, and there were endless offside calls, followed by tangles where no one was really in command of the ball.
One of those clumps of players formed just to the edge of the penalty area, and Mac could barely see where the ball was—until too late.
It squirted free, and a Blue Sox forward managed to tip it into the goal with a short kick from an undefended corner.
Mac slammed his fists down onto his knees. He was so angry that he hadn’t anticipated the shot. Even though he knew it was impossible to block every ball from going into the net, he had been hoping to keep the Blue Sox off the Scoreboard for a little longer. The way the Cougars were playing, particularly defense, they needed all the help they could get.
For the rest of the first half, the two teams slogged back and forth across the field. There was no scoring and little accomplished. Except for wearing one another down.
“See, it’s not a pushover, is it?” Coach Robertson said as the Cougars gathered at the bench. “You’re more tired than you usually are at this point, aren’t you? That’s because you’re using more muscle than brains out there. You’re just not thinking.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Mel.
“You start using your noggins,” said the coach. “And I’m not talking about just heading the ball. Start playing as a team again. Keep your eyes on your teammates as well as the ball. Look for the openings, and make the best of them.”
“Coach, I noticed something,” Mac piped up. “It might not mean anything, but maybe it does.”
He pointed out what he had observed about the Blues’ weak middle of the field defense.
“Even when subs go in, the defense just isn’t strong there,” Mac said.
“Good point,” said the coach. “With your line of sight, that’s a good pickup. Offense, keep that in mind. Get the ball to Dougie when he’s in front of the goal. But defense, make sure you still clear the ball to the sides. Otherwise, Mac will be in trouble.”
Mac was pleased at the coach’s reaction to what he had observed. He was happy that he could make a real contribution. He was determined to concentrate on what was happening out there and see if he noticed anything else that might help.
Such concentration helped keep his mind off the mysterious cartoonist. For the time being, anyway.
alfway through the second half of the game, the Scoreboard still read, Cougars 1, Blue Sox 1. Scoring had bogged down, and neither side seemed able to get the ball into the net.
The coach had changed his forward line now. He had taken Dougie from the center and put him into the left wing position. With his usual tenacity, Dougie managed to set up one goal attempt after another. But save after save followed.
Frustrated by the lack of scoring, Mac started calling out encouragement. Only now he had to yell loud to be heard at the opposite end of the field, where so much of the action was taking place.
He was practically hoarse when the game turned in his direction. A loose ball skittered into the far corner. Billy chased it, got control, and turned to boot it upfield.
To Mac’s horror, Billy sent the ball into the middle of the field instead of up the lines. Two Blue Sox midfielders were ready and waiting. They brought the ball right down to the penalty area and lined up a shot.
Mac did his best to read them, but these were two new guys fresh off the bench. He faked a little in one direction, hoping to lure the ball the other way, but it was no use. From an angle just off center, the ball went zooming across him into the far corner of the net for a goal.
Now the Scoreboard read, Blue Sox 2, Cougars 1.
“Billy!” Mac yelled. “What were you thinking?”
Billy scowled. “Coach said to set up the plays in the middle of the field. Or weren’t you listening?”
“Yeah, I was listening. And I heard him say for the
to keep clearing the ball to the sides! Where were you when he said that?”
Billy didn’t reply. He hunched his shoulders and turned his attention to the center of the field, where play was about to resume.
What’s with that guy? Mac thought for the second time that day.
There was still five minutes left on the clock. Plenty of time to catch up and turn the score around.
“Come on, Dougie! Let’s go, Jackie! I know you can do it, Mickey!”
A light wind drifted across the field and seemed to scatter Mac’s words to the four corners of the field as the softest of whispers.
And for all the good they did, they might as well have been the utterances of a ghost. When the final whistle blew, the score remained the same. The Blue Sox had gained a victory, and the Cougars dropped a notch in the league standings.
After lining up and performing the ritual of handshakes with the winners, the defeated Cougar team jogged off the field into their locker room.
Other than the sounds of locker doors slamming and equipment being banged around, it was quiet as the team got cleaned up and ready to leave. The coach had little to say except that he’d see them at practice on Monday.
“Any notable quotables?” Jimmy asked, sitting on the bench near Mac’s locker. “Come on, Mac, you’re never at a loss for words.”
Mac just shook his head.
“Dougie? Stevie? Mel? Anyone have anything to say?”
As if by mutual consent, the whole team remained silent.
“Okay, I’ll put away my notepad,” said Jimmy. “Whatever you say is off the record. What went wrong out there?”
Mickey mumbled something about the coach being right. “And that’s all I’m going to say,” he added.
“He was right on the money,” Mac agreed. “I could see it all the way across the field. Missed opportunities, one after another.”
For the next few minutes, Mac held forth on everything that everyone had done wrong. And he was on the mark every time; no one could disagree with that.
When he paused, Jimmy spoke up. “And what about you, Mac? What about your game?”
The whole locker room was suddenly silent. Waves of tension filled every corner as each player awaited Mac’s reply.
Mac stared Jimmy straight in the eye and said coldly, “I was as bad as everyone else, no doubt about it. You can report that—along with whatever else it is you’re going to print.”
ac got a phone call soon after he walked through his kitchen door after the game. It was Jimmy.
“Hey, you mad at me or something?” Jimmy asked.
Mac mumbled something about being disappointed about the game.
“Well, I hope your mood gets better. Don’t forget, we have a dance to go to tonight! Though from what I saw in the locker room before the game today, I don’t think I want to be caught near you on the dance floor.”
Mac said, “Yeah, I’m a real comedian. But we’ll see who gets the last laugh.”
After dinner, Mac took a long shower. The hot water seemed to take away a lot of the tension he was feeling. Halfway through toweling himself off, he decided to take Dougie’s advice and put the cartoons out of his mind until Monday. If it was Jimmy, he’d find out then. If it wasn’t, he didn’t want to risk ruining their friendship by acting cold. Besides, he didn’t want to give anything away by behaving differently.
By the time Dougie’s mom stopped by to pick him up, he was determined to treat Jimmy just as he always did.
Dougie and Jimmy were already in the car. “You’re looking spiffy,” Jimmy said as Mac slid into the seat beside him. “You do that for Deanna?”
Dougie grinned as Mac turned bright red.
Dougie’s mother dropped them off at the school gym. Inside, colored lights flashed, streamers fluttered in air currents, and music boomed from big speakers set up in the corners. Hordes of kids were dancing while other groups stood around the outskirts of the room or by the refreshment table.
Mac, Dougie, and Jimmy made a beeline for the food. They filled their napkins with cookies and brownies, then grabbed cups of punch. Hands full, they looked around for other people they knew.
“Hey, there’s Mickey and Jackie,” Mac said. The three boys made their way across the floor to the others. They all exchanged greetings, then turned their attention to the dance floor.
“Look at Mel!” said Dougie. “He’s dancing with Sandra McCloud! Man, the guy is all arms and legs!”
“Maybe we should call him ‘the octopus, ’” Jimmy joked.
“And there’s Sam Napoli, with Joan Rockport. Do you think he could get any closer to her?” Dougie went on.
“Yeah, he’s a real space invader,” Jimmy agreed. “Wonder which planet he’s from. Get it?”
Listening to Jimmy, Mac’s suspicions suddenly flared up again. He gave Jimmy a sidelong look. “You’re pretty quick with those nicknames and stuff,” he said.
Jimmy laughed. “I got a million of ‘em!” he said.
I bet you do, Mac couldn’t stop himself from thinking. And I bet they come in handy when you do your cartoons.
“Hey, there’s Billy!” Dougie’s cry interrupted his thoughts. “Billy, come on over here!”
Mac saw Billy glance in their direction and frown. He said something to the girl he was with, then the two of them came over to Mac’s group. Mac didn’t recognize the girl at first, until Jimmy greeted her.
“Hi, Margie, taking time off from the newspaper, or are you here as a reporter?”
Margie Lewis answered coolly, “It wouldn’t look very good if the editor of the paper didn’t show up at the dance the
was throwing, now would it? And if I see something that’s worth putting in the paper, then I’ve killed two birds with one stone, haven’t I?”
The boys had no reply to that, so they sipped their punch and ate their snacks in silence. Then Jimmy announced he had to go to the bathroom. “But you don’t have to put that in the paper, Margie,” he said in a stage whisper as he left.
Mac finished up the last of his punch and tossed his cup in the trash. All he had left from the refreshment table was a brownie. Just as he shoved the whole thing in his mouth at once, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned around to see Deanna Palumbo standing in front of him.
“Hi, Mac,” she said brightly. She was looking really sharp in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with a blazer over it.
Mac, his mouth full of brownie, couldn’t speak at first. Then, to his horror, when he tried to say hello, he sprayed Deanna with a light shower of crumbs! As his face turned beet red, he heard Dougie and the other soccer players sniggering.
Finally he swallowed. “Hi, Deanna,” he said lamely. “Jimmy said you’d be here.”
Jimmy?” Deanna asked.
“He’ll be back in a second. Uh, so, what do you think of the dance?”
Deanna gave him an impish smile. “Come out on the dance floor with me, and maybe I’ll tell you!”