Even the Score
This is no big deal, Ava Sackett thought. Then she turned and sprinted away from the boys.
Her heart beat in rhythm with her feet. Thin lines of sweat trickled down her neck from the heat of the September Texas sun. Her fingertips tingled with anticipation. She sensed the coaches on the sidelines watching. Today is my big chance, she thought. A chance to show she could do more than kick a football.
She was now the official kicker of the Ashland Tiger Cubs. She was also the first girl in the history of Ashland Middle School to make the football team.
Not that any other girl had tried out.
She knew some boys in the halls had been whispering about her. They said that her being on the team was a pity thing or a special consideration, because her dad coached the high school team. Her twin sister Alex told her not to listen to them.
“You’re good at football. Really good. Better-than-most-boys good,” Alex insisted. And when Ava kicked the thirty-three-yard field goal at the game last Saturday, those boys finally stopped whispering.
“I’m going to try mixing things up,” Coach Kenerson announced at practice today. “Ava, you go in for Ethan at wide receiver.”
She couldn’t hold back her grin. Finally! A chance to be a part of the action.
Wide receivers needed to be superfast to catch the pass from the quarterback and then sprint down the field for a touchdown. Running wasn’t a problem for Ava. She’d always been fast. Her mom said she ran before she learned to walk. Ava flexed her fingers, readying herself for the catch.
Corey O’Sullivan, the quarterback, torpedoed the ball toward the other wide receiver, Owen Rooney. Ava wished Corey had sent it her way,
but he’d made the right choice. She was surrounded, while no defenders blocked Owen. It was an easy grab-and-go.
Ava watched the ball land in Owen’s outstretched hands. Then he pivoted his shoulders suddenly, and just as suddenly, the ball dropped onto the grass. Defenders dove in for the interception.
“Are you kidding me?” Coach K bellowed. He threw up his stocky arms in disbelief. Owen, their star wide receiver, had bungled the easy play.
Coach K marched across the field until he stood an inch away from Owen. He pressed his face close to Owen’s helmet. “What is with you this week? These are Pee Wee catches. Baby stuff. Where’s your focus?”
Owen shrugged and stared at his cleats.
Even across the field, Ava saw Owen’s face flame. His wiry body tensed as the coach yelled. Ava felt bad for him. Owen was usually able to catch the trickiest passes, but his technique had been sloppy all week.
As Coach K returned to the sidelines, Owen glanced toward her. She met his gaze, hoping to
send some silent encouragement. She and Alex always did this across a crowded room, and it worked.
Must be an identical twin thing, Ava decided, because Owen scowled at her, then turned away.
Ava jogged back to the line of scrimmage. Was Owen angry that Coach K had also put her in at his position? She’d moved to Ashland, Texas, from Massachusetts this summer and didn’t know Owen well enough to know how competitive he was.
They ran the drill again. Ava sprinted into the backfield, hoping to find an open pocket. She heard defenders alongside her. Her focus stayed on Corey as he set up for the pass. Once again, he targeted Owen.
Ava’s gaze moved to Owen. For a split second, she thought he glanced back at her. She shook her head. That couldn’t be right. A wide receiver would never take his eyes off the ball.
Then Owen stumbled. He caught himself quickly, but not before the football landed five feet behind him.
Coach K paced the sidelines, muttering loudly. Corey jogged over to Owen. “What’s the deal, O? Those are perfect passes I’m sending you.”
Owen shrugged, then snuck another quick glance toward Ava.
Corey kicked at the grass. This was the closest Ava had ever seen him come to losing his cool. “Come on, O! Work with me.”
“Rooney!” Coach K called. “Move yourself to tight end.”
“But Coach, I always play wide receiver on the left,” Owen protested.
“This time you’re not.” Coach Kenerson blew his whistle. “Get in alongside Sackett.”
Owen hurried next to Ava. She tried to catch his eye, maybe give him a thumbs-up or something, but now he wouldn’t even look her way. The whistle sounded, and the center snapped the ball. Ava took off. Owen raced alongside her, keeping pace.
They matched each other in speed. Ava tracked the arc of the football while her feet stayed in motion. The ball headed toward her. Her heart pounded with anticipation as she readied to make the catch.
If she nailed this, maybe Coach K would put her in more games. Up until now, he’d been nervous about having her on the field where she could get tackled. That girl thing again! But she
wasn’t afraid. Her dad and her older brother, Tommy, had taught her how take a hit. Plus, she was fast. These boys had no chance of catching her once that ball was cradled in her arms.
Come on, come on, she chanted silently as the ball soared toward her. She sensed Owen only inches away, hovering by her side. Why was he so close? Didn’t he trust her to make the catch?
She squinted into the sun and reached up. As her fingertips brushed the ball’s worn leather, something hooked her ankle. Her feet flew up, and she landed with a surprising thud on the ground. Her stomach twisted as the ball rolled out of reach.
An incomplete pass.
She whipped her head around. Owen was sprawled next to her, his cleat suspiciously close to her ankle.
“Did you trip me?” Ava asked.
“S-sorry,” Owen stammered. He pulled away from her. “I got too close.”
Before she could reply, Coach K towered over them. His mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes. “Rooney! Sackett! Are you two confused?”
“Confused?” Ava repeated.
“Did you think this was a clown routine at the circus?” He ran his fingers through his graying hair. “Do you need me to draw a picture to show you where the wide receiver and tight end are supposed to run?”
“I know where to go,” Owen insisted, standing.
“Me too.” Ava scrambled to her feet as Coach Kenerson lectured about playing position.
She waited for Owen to tell the coach that it was his mistake, that he’d accidentally tripped her. Owen stayed silent, and Ava fumed. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. Had Owen messed her up on purpose?
“Let’s run it again,” Ava suggested. She was eager to prove herself.
This time Corey sent the ball right to her. She caught it easily, dodging the defenders nearby.
“That’s how it’s done!” Coach K cried. “Everyone give me two cooldown laps around the field.”
The team set off jogging. Ava and Owen pulled off their helmets and joined the pack.
“Hey, Owen! Want a candy bar?” Xander Browning called loudly.
“Huh?” Owen asked.
“I’ve got plenty of Butterfingers. Oh, wait, you don’t need any of those today, do you?” Xander teased. A couple of guys laughed.
“That’s not funny,” Ava called back. All players had off days. And off weeks.
“Peanut butter with chocolate is my favorite kind of candy. How about you?” she asked Owen, even though she knew the crack was about his failure to catch and not about a candy bar. She thought he’d appreciate her changing the subject.
He opened his mouth as if to say something. Then he scowled and sprinted forward. He finished half a lap ahead of the rest of the team.
Owen really doesn’t like me, Ava realized. She wondered why. She usually got along with guys who played sports. Her sister said she “spoke their language.” But Owen wasn’t speaking to her at all.
Ava gulped from her water bottle and wiped her forehead with a towel. Her short chocolate-brown curls lay matted in sweat. Helmet-head was way worse than regular hat-head! As she tried to fluff them with her fingers, she overheard Ryan O’Hara, the tackle, and Andy Baker, the middle linebacker, behind her.
“Owen looks horrible out there,” Ryan complained.
“It’s all her fault,” Andy whispered.
Ava stiffened. She didn’t have to guess who they were talking about. She was the only girl on the field.
“My dad and brother said this is what happens when you let girls play. My brother said they’re bad luck on the field,” Andy reported.
“You’re right!” Ryan sounded as if he’d just discovered a big secret. “She’s messing him up.”
Ava swallowed hard. She wasn’t doing anything to mess up Owen. He was messing up all on his own.
Getting on the team hadn’t been easy. She had had to appeal to the school board to give her a fair chance. Now that she’d made it, she just wanted to be like everyone else on the team. She didn’t want to be the girl football player.
This is Texas, she reminded herself. People here don’t like it when outsiders mess with their football traditions. Girls aren’t part of the football tradition.
Coach K had them gather around and take a knee. She gazed at her teammates. Corey gave her a grin. Most of the guys, like Corey and Xander
and their friend Logan Medina, supported her. Big, burly Andy never said anything nice about anyone, so she wasn’t surprised that he had a problem with her. She glanced at Owen, always so cool and mellow. She never thought he’d be angry to have her on the team.
“. . . we have one job every Saturday,” the coach was saying when she tuned back in. “What is it?”
“To win!” they all cried.
“Wrong!” bellowed Coach K. “Our job is to play our best as a team. A team is a group effort. So if you had a bad day, got a bad grade, ate a bad sandwich, that’s your deal and you need to leave it behind in the locker room. When you walk onto this field, you walk on as a group. We have a job to do together, so you have to all stop thinking about yourselves and put the good of the team first. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Coach!” they all shouted.
“Great. Tomorrow I expect you to come to practice with better focus and ready to play as a family. Together we will light up that new scoreboard we’re getting!”
The team all placed their hands in the middle and yelled, “Go, Cubs!”
Ava chewed her lip as she made her way off the field. Coach K was right. Her dad was always telling his players the same thing. She was too caught up with proving herself. She had to stop worrying and do what was best for the team.
From now on, she’d be a total team player.
Alex Sackett tapped her purple pen against her new notebook. She glanced at the red, blue, green, and orange pens lined up neatly by her arm. Her plan had been to take meeting notes in different colors. Blue for calendar dates. Green for fund-raising events. Red for money issues. Orange for seventh-grade notes.
She loved color-coding. She arranged her underwear drawer by color. It drove Ava crazy. Ava’s drawers had no order. Her underwear was tossed in with her sweatshirts and outgrown bathing suits.
But what should she use the purple pen for? Alex hadn’t decided yet.
“Alex, will you take the minutes today?” Ms. Palmer, the student council adviser, asked.
“Sure thing!” Alex smiled. Purple would be
for writing down the minutes! She turned to a blank page. She loved blank notebook paper. The possibilities to fill it were endless.
She glanced to her left at sixth-grade president Chloe Klein. Chloe had turned over a math worksheet to scribble notes with a pencil that was missing an eraser. Next to Chloe, eighth-grade president Johnny Morton leaned back in his chair and stared out the window. He hadn’t bothered to bring paper or a pen to the after-school meeting. A baseball player who’d broken the school’s pitching record, Johnny had an easy smile for everyone. All the kids liked him, and he’d definitely won off his popularity.
No wonder Ms. Palmer chose me to take notes, Alex thought. Of the three class presidents, she was definitely the most organized. In addition to the presidents, the vice presidents, secretaries, and treasurers from each of the three grades filled the classroom Thursday afternoon for the student council meeting.
Alex took a lot of notes and made a lot of lists. Her family teased her for it, but she tried to explain to them that her lists were calming, that they gave life order. She listed vocabulary words to learn, hobbies she wanted to try, exotic
places to visit, books she’d read, and movies she’d watched. When she was little, she kept a running list of her favorite animals and quizzed her family weekly on it. Ava was the only one who knew when giraffe had switched places with dolphin.
“First item,” Ms. Palmer announced. “We will be hosting the Homecoming dance in the gym next month, and we need to start planning. Who has ideas for a theme?”
Chloe raised her hand.
“No hand raising here,” Ms. Palmer said with a smile. “This isn’t a classroom.” She glanced at the desks and whiteboard and chuckled. “Okay, it is a classroom, but we’re not in class. We’re having a discussion. Everyone can just talk, as long as we all listen, too.”
“How about Texas Sky?” Chloe suggested. “We could decorate with glow-in-the-dark stars.”
“I like Hollywood Nights,” the eighth-grade vice president said.
“We could have a red carpet leading into the gym,” added the sixth-grade treasurer. “And wear movie-star dresses.”
Everyone had an idea. Alex thought the girls’ ideas were much better than the boys’. One
sixth-grade boy wanted the theme to be Extreme Sports.
“How would you decorate the gym?” she asked him.
“Zip lines,” he answered. “And skateboard ramps.”
“But the girls want to wear pretty dresses,” Alex protested.
Idea after idea was presented, and Alex had something to say about each one. Her mother liked to say she skipped baby talk and started speaking in full sentences, every one stating her opinion. Not all of her comments were negative. She liked a lot of the ideas, especially the Hollywood one. She felt good about speaking her mind. This is why the seventh graders elected me, she thought.
“Okay, let’s revisit the list at our next meeting,” Ms. Palmer announced. “Now on to planning our annual car wash.”
As Ms. Palmer reviewed the details of the big car wash to raise money for student activities and equipment, Alex wondered about the dance. Back in their old town in Massachusetts, the middle school didn’t have dances. She’d never been to one. What would she wear? She
imagined herself in a shiny, hot-pink dress she’d seen in a fashion magazine. Her long, curly brown hair would fall to her shoulders in soft waves. She would look so good in that dress walking into the dance with . . . with who?
Her heartbeat quickened. Who would she go to the dance with?
She glanced around the table. No one on the student council interested her. She couldn’t stop picturing Corey O’Sullivan in a dark suit and a pink tie to match her dress. He’d look so good. They’d look so good.
She shook her head. There was no way.
Alex was pretty sure Corey was going out with Lindsey Davis again, and she and Lindsey were on their way to becoming close friends. Weeks ago she’d chosen Lindsey’s friendship over Corey, even though it seemed like Corey liked her. But now he was back with Lindsey. So who could be a potential date?
“Alex,” Ms. Palmer called. “Can you read back the budget figures?”
Alex glanced at her notes and read back the numbers. Her purple pen hadn’t stopped writing, even while she daydreamed. Ava could only focus on one thing at a time. Not Alex. She did
her homework, watched TV, and texted all at the same time and never missed a word.
Ms. Palmer reported that last year the student council had raised two thousand dollars through car washes, bake sales, and T-shirt sales. “This money is buying a new electronic scoreboard for the football team,” she announced proudly. “Once I send in the payment, the scoreboard will be delivered and installed next week.”
“We should turn our attention to what to buy with the money we’ll raise this year,” she said. “Ideas?”
“New uniforms for the baseball team,” Johnny said.
“The school banner at the football field should be replaced,” the Extreme Sports boy added.
“We could pay a celebrity to be at the pep rally for the first game,” put in Carly Hermano, who was a cheerleader. Alex had met Carly when she’d foolishly tried out for cheerleading. Alex couldn’t get any of the steps right, and she was deathly afraid to try a backflip. Not good for cheerleading! Carly did an amazing backflip and was also the seventh-grade vice president.
“There are other things at this school besides sports,” Alex interjected.
All eyes turned to her.
Suddenly she wished she hadn’t spoken. She didn’t want anyone to think they’d made a mistake electing the new kid as president. But she took a deep breath and continued. “We could plant flowers outside the building. We could buy supplies for the art room or new instruments for the band. We could have the literary magazine printed in color.”
“We have a literary magazine?” Johnny asked skeptically.
“Well, if we don’t, we should start one,” she said. “The point is, we should think beyond the sports field. There’s more to Ashland Middle School than football.”