The ponytail just fell into her hand. What else could she do? It happened so fast.
After a hard breakaway bump-o-matic, squinchy-faced, stretched-out gazelle sprint, they were alone in the corner with the ball. They toed, touched, and trapped the ball between them with cleat-clad feet, teeth gritted with spiraling frustration.
Tardy teammates were no immediate help, jogging, seemingly in slo-mo (but not really), to catch up/mark up. By some trick of physics and raw passion, slow motion and hyper action co-existed on that field.
No one moved in to provide “a little help here” for either player. Everyone knew the two girls in the tangle were due to duke it out. It was expected. Even the Field Marshals noticed the defender had taken a dirty barrage of low blows, trips and hooks from the striker from the first touch. It was inevitable they would lock up once the defender decided to defend herself.
Circling like a flock of ospreys, all the players moved into position transfixed by the potential of this open-air clash. They were ready to dole out the leverage should the ball squirt free from the girl gladiators.
The defender’s only immediate companion, a crouched, captive and queasy goalie, shouted and prowled the pitch ready to bat it away, or worse, helplessly watch it fly by her outstretched glove encased fingers, should the defender lose this battle.
On fire, in an Amazonian warrior fury of jabbing elbows, lethal knees and streaming ponytails, they connected skin to skin in resounding bitch- slaps causing the spectators to intone, “ooooooh.” The trick of physics made this dancing dust-up seem like forever.
With every panting breath: This is for coach. This is for mom. This is for my team. This is to bond us, best friends forever. This is for all the training and the money and the sweat and the tears. This is to win State Cup. This is for my future…
Turn it and burn it. Turn it AND BURN IT. TURN IT AND BURN IT!
The ponytail fell into her hand. A column of hair smooth and whippy and tempting in her fingers.
She couldn’t resist in the nanosecond it took to decide. A sacrificial offering. A retaliation. A stop to this stalemate.
She yanked the ponytail.
And the whistle blew.
And in clear ringing syllables here it came.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” shouted the striker.
For a beat, only the chattering of the green parrots nesting in the field lights was heard. The rubber band, stretched beyond its capacity, had snapped. The play was over. Both received yellow cards from the referee with a stern warning. The defender for the hair pulling, the striker for the language.
What the fuck was wrong with the defender became abundantly clear as she and her team lost two games and tied just one during this high-end tournament where scouts were taking note. They should have won, they have the skills, strength and talent. At times they have played brilliantly as linked and like-minded as if they were sisters from other mothers. But when it counted, like this tournament, when there was pressure, they could be angry and distant from each other giving opposing teams the gaping chink in the armor. The defender knew she’d be alone in the box dancing for her life, and what did it matter. What was wrong? Everyone could see and hear the cracking fractures.
At the volatile age of 15, her team mates don’t share the same vision of the sport. Boys, hormones, cars, malls, cell phones are carving chunks out of the girls she had come to love. The need to make college soccer scholarships materialize or never see higher education is exacting its pound of flesh in this repressed economy. At 15, real life is forcing choices. Real life is shouting in their faces to grow up, choose. Do you play this game, or do you play more grown up games now?
The team? It is splintering.
“If we split up now, I know I’ll never see some of them ever again. Starting over with a new team is so hard. I am so tired. I am so sad."
And for a defender who thought her beloved team would last forever, grief gave way to an angry yank of a ponytail.
photos by Linnnn