Authors: Matt Christopher,The #1 Sports Writer For Kids
Tags: #JUV028000, #General Fiction
The Scoreboard now showed one goal—for the Cougars.
Mac raced downfield toward the center to embrace his teammates as they celebrated their goal. He then quickly ran back into his defensive position. He thought the Hotspurs had a mean look about them that said they weren’t happy with the way things were going—and they were determined to change it.
His prediction turned out to be true—oh, too true.
Like a repeater rifle, the Hotspurs managed to set up one shot after another. They came so fast, Mac had his work cut out for him.
But even his talent and determination were no match for the Hotspurs. The onslaught proved to be indefensible. By the time the whistle blew signaling the end of the first half of the game, the Scoreboard read, Hotspurs 2, Cougars 1.
Mac trotted off the field toward the Cougars’ bench. There was a cool east wind blowing across the field. Still, he could feel warm beads of sweat trickling down the parts of his back where his shirt wasn’t stuck fast. His legs ground out the distance to the spot where the team had gathered around the water barrel.
“Cool off for a minute,” the coach was saying as he got there. “Just have some water and let yourselves relax for a few minutes.”
Mac got his water in a paper cup. He quickly let it slide down the back of his throat with his head thrown slightly back. It felt terrific for a moment. But it took two refills to quench his thirst—and prepare his voice for the performance he was about to give.
“All of you are playing a solid game,” the coach began, once the team had drunk their fill. “But you’re playing it too close and too tight. The result is that no one ever seems to have the big picture of what’s happening on the field. Except Mac, sometimes.”
“So, what is the big picture, coach?” asked Dougie, right on cue.
“I’ll answer that question!” Mac said suddenly. With an aggressive move, he placed himself right in front of Coach Robertson. Although all his teammates but one knew what was coming, many of them looked surprised at his boldness just the same. Mac cleared his throat and began his harangue.
“Offense, you’re rushing your kicks. You had half a dozen good setups that you blew because you didn’t take enough time lining up the shot. And you’re starting to get ahead of yourselves there, too. You know what I mean. Your heads are coming up too fast. When you’re shooting at that target, once you’ve lined it up, keep your eye on the ball, for Pete’s sake.”
“It feels like they’re breathing down my neck, sometimes,” said Dougie.
“Hah! They’re all over the backfield most of the time,” said Mac. #8220;Believe me, I can see ’em.”
“Thank you, Mac —,” the coach started to say. But Mac cut him off.
“You midfielders could help out a little more, too, you know. Help the forwards set up plays instead of standing back and admiring a pass you just made. And forwards, trust your instincts about the goal shot and go for it.”
“I don’t suppose you have any thoughts about the defense, do you?” the coach asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
“All I know is I felt like a duck at a shooting gallery, so a little more help from my sweeper and backs would be greatly appreciated!”
Just then the ref’s whistle blew, signaling the start of the second half.
“Yeah, Cougars, let’s go for it!” shouted Mac. “Come on, team!”
As Mac hurried to his position, he stole a look at his suspect’s face to see if he could read any kind of reaction to his performance in it. But the face was stony, intent on the game at hand.
Still, Mac was sure he had the right guy.
All in good time, he said to himself.
His cheering was stronger than ever as the team took its position for the kickoff.
The Hotspurs were quick to attack. Within two minutes of the second half, they had added another goal to their score.
It was booted in by that same redhead who had threatened with the penalty lack in the first half. As before, his face gave away nothing. Mac couldn’t read him at all. He ended up playing him for the wrong side, and the goal sailed right in.
His halftime sting operation forgotten, Mac slammed his fists against his thighs in frustration.
With the Scoreboard reading, Hotspurs 3, Cougars 1, the fans on both sides erupted in an explosion of noisemaking. Half of those watching the game cheered the Hotspur goal while the other half cried out for improved defense from the Cougars.
With the Hotspurs ahead by two goals, the chances of winning the game had decreased considerably.
Still, there were several minutes left to play.
Shortly after the last goal was scored, a collision near the sideline brought a halt in the game. As a Hotspurs defensemans ankle was looked after, Coach Robertson spoke a few words of encouragement to his players gathered nearby until play resumed.
Jogging back and forth in front of the goal, Mac kept his body alert while his attention was focused on the far end of the field. It looked like Dougie had been revved up by the coach’s pep talk. He passed the ball to Jackie at the opposite wing slot, darted toward the backfield, then came straight down the center, ready to receive the ball back.
The Hotspurs’ defense expected him to either set up a shot for Jackie or take one himself from that position. Instead, he just kept running forward while Mickey came out of nowhere and took the shot.
The ball sailed into the net at the opposite corner from where it was booted, a nice clean arc that completely missed the Hotspur goalie’s desperate attempt to block it.
The Scoreboard now read, Hotspurs 3, Cougars 2.
The Hotspurs were obviously surprised by the revived Cougars. This was not the way their games had been going this season. Mac could see that they were having trouble regrouping after Mickey’s goal. There were endless tie-ups and tangles on the field. One whistle after another blew as the ball went offside or a drop ball was called.
Both sides were playing a sluggish game. No matter how each tried, they simply couldn’t get the ball into an open space long enough to line up a kick.
Mac couldn’t restrain himself from calling out now and then to his teammates at the opposite end of the field. And then, suddenly, as it happened so often, the tide turned and the play was all down at his goal. A tiring Cougars defense let the Hotspurs gain an advantage again and again.
Mac was totally focused. Without a sound coming from his mouth other than the occasional grunt, he was all over the place. He managed to block four successive shots on goal, one after the other, without a ball getting near the net.
When he finally got the chance, he booted the ball to one of the Cougars open at the far corner of the field. At last, the ball began its journey toward the Hotspurs’ goal.
The Cougars’ fans in the stands went wild. They cheered Mac over and over for the job he had just done at the goal. They then turned their attention to the opposite side of the field, where the action had grown intense.
nspired by the change in momentum at the opposite goal, the Cougars’ defense had caught fire. Constantly on the move, they opened one passing lane after another. It seemed as though the Hotspurs were always half a beat behind.
Not that they were out of it altogether. Oh, no, Mac could see them getting tougher and tougher in the backfield, that part that was most in his range of vision. They seemed to grow larger as they bore down on the Cougars.
But tougher play also made for mistakes. Moves that had succeeded for the Hotspurs in the first half were no longer as crisp. Timing was off. The ball remained in their control far less than it had earlier.
Jackie was outplaying them better than he had any team all season long. Backed up by a midfielder to his rear and another Cougar forward to his left, he dribbled the ball into good scoring position again and again.
Gradually the Hotspurs defense began to give more attention to the right side of the field, where Jackie held sway. Eventually it seemed as though all eyes were on Jackie and his spectacular display of dribbling.
That left the field pretty clear for Dougie. So when a lane opened up and Jackie managed to get off a beautiful pass across field, Dougie was ready for it. He trapped it with the inside of his left foot, nudged it into position, and took a quick, hard kick in the direction of the goal.
The ball rocketed forward, then rose as it approached the goal. The Hotspurs’ goalie leaped up to block it, but it glanced off his fingertips—and plopped behind him inside the net.
The stands went wild. Cheers broke out all over the field as the Cougars converged upon Dougie. They swarmed around him, slapping high fives and tens and hugging him all at the same time.
Rushing in from his position, Mac, too, felt a flush of pleasure at the phenomenal turnaround the team had accomplished in the second half. And Dougie was at the heart of it, no doubt about that. As goalie, Mac had done his part by holding off the Hotspurs’ offense—but you don’t put points on the Scoreboard from the goal area. Glancing up, he could see that the Scoreboard looked pretty good right now, reading, Cougars 3, Hotspurs 3.
He caught sight of his parents, huddled together in the late-afternoon chill, waving to him. He nodded back in their direction.
He also saw Jimmy Palumbo. Jimmy was sitting with two girls. Mac flushed slightly when he recognized Deanna. It took him a moment longer to recognize Margie Lewis, the editor of the
She waved to Billy, who waved back. Guess they must be an item, Mac figured.
A whistle signaling the two-minute warning brought his attention back to the game.
Okay, he thought, just two minutes to hold off the Hotspurs from cracking the targeted area between the goalposts. It’s up to me, more than anyone else, to see to that.
Having blocked a near-record number of attempts already, was he up to it? Mac was determined to demonstrate that the answer to that question was a loud and clear “Yes!”
Those final two minutes of the Hotspurs game would long be remembered by fans of both teams. For the players, they were even more memorable.
The two teams dug in with an unbelievable determination. After holding a lead for so much of the game, the Hotspurs were clearly going after one more goal for a win.
Proud that they had come back from such a deficit, the Cougars were equally bent on not giving up the ball for a loss.
And both teams were bone weary. From his position at the goal, Mac could see the drawn lips, matted hair, smudges, spatters, and wear-and-tear of a long hard game almost behind them. More important, he could see clearly what was happening every time the ball got close to his area. That way, he was able to hold off the few attempts made on goal. He seemed to defy the laws of gravity with one stretch or leap after another that kept the ball away from the net.
It looked as though the final whistle would blow with a mass of players congregated right in front of him, when a pass from one Hotspur to another ricocheted off of Mickey’s sharp, bony knee. The ball went sailing in the opposite direction, and the two teams raced down toward the opposite goal.
Seconds were left. The referee was undoubtedly drawing in his breath to exhale through the whistle when a pass from Jackie in Stevie’s direction was intercepted by Dougie. Being careful not to get offside, the speedy center had come right up to the line of the penalty area and was in perfect position. He barely tapped the ball with the inside of his shoe, but it went sailing into the net as the whistle blew.
In the most dramatic finish anyone could ask for, the Cougars had pulled it out and won the game: Cougars 4, Hotspurs 3!
“So what do you say about that?” Jimmy Palumbo cried out to Mac. The Cougars’ goalie had come speeding toward the bench to join in the celebration with the other members of his team. After showering each other with everything they could find on the bench, they had begun to drift in toward the locker room when the question was asked.
“Fantastic!” Mac called back as he attempted to joined his teammates.
“So, you think
about the game went well?” Jimmy asked significantly.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” replied Mac.
Mac showered quickly then joined his parents outside the locker room and received all kinds of praise for his play.
“I don’t know what more you could have done to help,” said his father. “You played a wonderful game.”
“Just like always,” added his mother.
he morning after the game with the Hotspurs, the Williams family piled into their van for a drive to Grandma and Grandpa Williams’s house in the next state to celebrate a special birthday: Grandpa s seventieth. There would be a big party, with aunts and uncles and cousins and a stayover at a nearby motel. On the drive up, Mr. Williams told stories about his father and related stories of his own growing up. Mrs. Williams finished the last-minute wrapping of some presents she had bought and also talked about her father-in-law.
Mac asked some questions about his cousins, most of whom were girls. There were a few boys younger than he was, but they were all pretty cool. He was looking forward to seeing them.
The trip went well, the party was a great success, and Mac had a great time at the motel. He ran up and down the corridor to fill up one bucket of ice after another in a race with two of his girl cousins, which he won.
“Boy, you’re pretty fast,” said Mary Alice, panting.
“It’s his soccer training,” said Elizabeth. “My folks told me that your folks told them that you’re the star of your soccer team at school.”
Mac was embarrassed.
“Star? What’s a star? A little twinkle in the universe, that’s what!” he answered. “Hey, betcha can’t make it to the front desk first!” He was off in a flash, trailed by the two girls.
The ride back home on Sunday afternoon was a lot quieter. The weekend had taken his mind off the cartoonist. But now, with Monday morning and a new edition of the
looming in front of him, he couldn’t help wondering if Operation Payback had worked.