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Pass. Kick. Goal. Those are pretty much the words I live by. It would also be accurate to say that every day after school I put on shin guards and pull tight the waxy, black laces on my shiny coal-colored cleats. I play through weather, bad days, homework overloads, injuries, and anything else you may encounter in daily life. I play until the crickets come out and it gets cold and the sky is slowly steeped with rose, magenta, tangerine, and lemon zest.

On the weekends my best friend Janina and I adventure together. It could be her painting my portrait, going skiing, swimming in icy mountain lakes, etc. One weekend, Janina surprised me by blurting out, “I want to be as good at soccer as you are, Rachel!” That was just about the most shocking statement Janina has ever made, and that’s saying something, considering that she’s crazier than me! This was so knock-you-off-your-feet, because Janina’s life is essentially art. My life is essentially soccer. Janina’s an artsy daydreamer. I’m a soccer star. Our friendship is based on the quote “opposites attract.” We are not meant to be on a sports team together.

Luckily, I was stable enough to find my bearings and replied, “Nina, you should sign up for the team!” The moment the words left my lips, I regretted them. My BFF was cut out for art, and maybe even hiking, but definitely not club soccer: a pressurized, play-harder-than-your-hardest sport.

The biggest win best friends talking
“You’re the best best friend ever!”

“Really?” Janina asked. “I always thought that you thought I was terrible at soccer, but you’ve proved me wrong! Yessss! I’m gonna sign up for the team right away!” As I tried to glue on a smile and stop my hands from sweating, Janina added, “You’re the best best friend ever!” It was too much to bear.

“Uh, thanks. Shoot, I just realized that I, uh, need to be home now!” Before Janina could say anything, I whipped out my phone and dialed home. I tried to ignore her puzzled face as I asked Mom for a ride home. “Bye, Janina!” I called as I ran out the door. My face turned beet red as I added, “Can’t wait until you sign up for the team!” Then I turned and sprinted down the street towards home, forgetting about Mom coming to pick me up.

*          *          *

“Rachel, sweetie, all I’m saying is that you aren’t the kind of girl who would do that to a friend!” Mom piled on the guilt by topping everything off with, “Janina called five times this evening!”

“You just don’t get it!” I said in an almost whisper. If I had been brave enough, I would have told my mom that Janina is my best friend in the whole wide world who manages me after losing a game, who I can tell anything and everything and will surely understand, and always knows what to do… and I completely lied to her. With that thought, my brimming wall of tears split and out came a flood. The tears splashed onto my red cheeks and I ran up the stairs desperately to the safety of my room.

*          *          *

When I got to the park early Saturday morning, it turned out that my hopes from the morning were ninety-percent desperation. Janina isn’t the kind of girl who says something and doesn’t follow up. I found her in the park, waiting expectantly for the team. The last word I’d use to describe Janina then would be soccer player. She was wearing jean shorts that looked tight and uncomfortable. No cleats or shin guards, just simple sandals. Janina smoothed her silky blouse and tossed some wavy black hair behind her shoulder.

“Uh… are you, ya know, still signed up for the team?” I asked.

“Of course!” fizzed Janina. “It’s just that I don’t have the equipment yet. So today I’ll just meet everyone.”

“Ohhhh… that’s, that’s fine,” I said uncertainly. “I like your outfit.” I felt guilty for adding that comment, but at least it broke the awkward silence that used to never occur between us.

*          *          *

The next few weeks of my life went terribly. At practice, Janina tripped and fell, kicked with her toe, passed the ball to the other team. She also asked embarrassing, dumb questions like, “What does the defense do again?” It seemed like she was trying to embarrass herself! Coach put the pressure on and held practice every day since the championship games were coming up. That was usually a stressful time of the year, but now it was unimaginable. To top it all off, Janina and I grew further and further apart, until I could hardly even call her my best friend.

One evening, after a particularly exasperating practice, coach called us all into a circle.

“Now,” she said, “we all know that our game which decides whether we go on to the championship finals or not is tomorrow.” We all nodded with nervous, soccer-loving smiles. “I have some homework for you tonight.” Some of the older girls like Suzie and Bella groaned. “I want you to think about what the word ohana means. You can ask parents, siblings, Google it, whatever. I just want you to be able to tell me what it means tomorrow.” With that, coach left our circle of confused girls. After a pause Janina picked up her duffel bag and left with a weak wave. Then, one of the nicest girls on the team, Natalie, left after a cheery goodbye.

“Man!” Suzie said. “Janina stunk like my second uncle’s weird aged cheddar cheese today!”

“I know, right?” Bella joined in. “She missed that one goal that any of us could make!” Bella gestured around the circle and the other girls nodded. Soon enough, everybody except for me dished out their share of mean comments about Janina. And when I say everybody, I mean my friends, my team, my family. Their expectant looks destroyed my last shard of pity for my used-to-be best friend.

“Rachel, I know that Janina is, like, your best friend and stuff, but you have to admit…”

“Yeah, totally,” I said. Then, surprising myself, I added, “I bet we’ll lose tomorrow with her!” While I expected to feel satisfied about agreeing with my team, I felt an inky black monster slither to my heart and settle there. And though it was hard to admit, I forced myself to. I knew what that monster was… guilt.

*          *          *

I woke up that morning with those special game-day butterflies that only dedicated soccer players feel. That day was our almost final game— the one that decides whether we get to go to the final championships. Coach looked nervous as she called us into a huddle.

“Girls?” she said. “Did any of you think about ohana last night?”

Well, I hadn’t thought about it last night, obviously. I have way too much on my mind and it’s just some word that nobody else will understand, I thought.

Coach continued on. “To be honest, I’m pretty disappointed in you girls today.” My heart fell to an impossibly deep spot somewhere below my cleats. “Well, I’ll tell you what ohana means. Ohana means family. Ohana means that everyone is responsible for everyone.” Coach took a breath. Every girl on the team was frozen. The pause didn’t even get the team rowdy and giggly again. We all held our breath, waiting. Coach started again. “We are all tightly bonded. We are friends, teammates, family. We are only as strong as our weakest link.” With that, Janina’s eyes widened and I could see the other girls wrinkle their eyebrows and sneak peeks at Janina. If coach noticed, she was unfazed by it. Now on a roll, she began again. “As the coach, I am proud when we win. I am proud when we score, and I am proud when we save a goal heroically. But I am most proud when I see teammates helping one another. And I have to say, girls, I haven’t been seeing a lot of that lately. I haven’t been seeing a lot of ohana, and I haven’t been very proud.” The words sank in.

I desperately tried to wrap my brain around coach’s concept, but the ref angrily gestured to our team to hurry up. We fanned out into our positions. As soon as the whistle blew, I received an expert pass from Bella, but I lost the ball. Luckily, Suzie got it and scored a leftie. For some reason, I didn’t feel that happy. Whenever I blinked, the word ohana flashed before my eyes. This distraction led me to let two opponents by me. Both of them scored, and I didn’t even notice. At halftime, the score was one to three. I ignored everything: my teammates congratulating Suzie on her leftie goal, a mean comment about Janina from Bella, and even coach giving me some gentle advice.

Things began to look up for the team as Bella scored two goals, both assisted by Suzie. Since I was the other forward, this was a bad sign. I had had no part in our team’s success today. I could tell people in the crowd started to lose their admiration of me. Usually, huge signs and banners screaming Rachel encouraged me on, but I didn’t notice any today. By the last quarter, things had gone back and forth but the score remained three to three. An opponent kicked the ball out and it was our throw in. I knew this was the moment. Usually the phrases “a throw in,” “from us,” “close to our goal,” “the game is tied,” “in the last quarter,” etc., make me get all jumpy and ecstatic with butterflies, but now I just felt a heavy weight in my stomach.

It was now that I noticed Coach had made a weird decision and played Janina in right wing, Suzie’s usual spot. I tricked a defender, making it past, and had a choice—Janina was wide open, with a good shot at the goal. Bella, on my left, was getting covered, but there was still a good chance she’d make it. In slow motion, a defender approached me. I lifted my leg and passed the ball to my left. The moment the ball left my foot, I heard Janina let out some kind of quiet but loud animal sound from deep inside her. Bella scored and the whistle blew with a sickening finality that suggested the end of my friendship with Janina.

*          *          *

If you’re a good soccer player, a soccer star, a good friend, a good teammate, would you go to the pizza party after your victory? If I was, I would. I would go to the party, drink tons of soda, eat lots of pizza, play games, and eat too much candy. I would be glad that there had been a scout watching the game, and that I played well. But no. I am not a soccer player, a soccer star, a good friend, a good teammate. And that’s why I am not going to play in the championship game.

*          *          *

When I got home, I escaped to my room. I cried and cried and cried and tried to ignore the constant flow of Snapchats coming from the pizza party. Eventually, my mom came into the room and talked to me for a while. She finally convinced me that soccer is what I live for. Yes, school comes first. Yes, family comes even before that. But next is soccer. I need to honor that. Feeling a little bit better, I decided to play the championship game.

*          *          *

The championship game for Orchid County is a huge deal. Practically the whole school comes out to watch. Banners and signs float in the huge crowd. People scream and laugh and shout and cheer and sometimes even cry. Coach usually gives us a huge pep talk before we head out onto the field, and we do a team cheer, and it’s one of the best days of my life. But that day, before even getting to the stadium, I could already see how different things would be. Before walking out onto the field, Coach didn’t say or do anything. She just gave us a pained, desperate look.

The biggest win playing soccer
I lifted my leg and passed the ball to my left

I had never felt so helpless in my life.

But then all of it flashed through my mind. Janina’s kindness despite me being better at soccer, my watching her paint for hours on end, the team being rude and her running away, me quitting… the realization was golden, whole and pure. Never is it one person’s fault, it is the whole team’s fault. It isn’t the “bad player.” It is the “bad team.” And it’s not about winning, it is about being a team. A team… no, a family. And nobody, not even toe-kicker Janina, is left behind. Nobody gets left behind. Nobody gets left behind. Nobody gets left behind. I knew that in order to win, we had to once again become a team, a family. I knew what Janina had felt. I understood what coach had felt. I knew what ohana meant.

In the third quarter, the score finally changed from zero to zero. They scored. My heart sank, and so did the team. We were just too down on ourselves.

Finally, Bella had a breakthrough and the ball came to the side we were trying to score on. An opponent stole the ball from us, but it somehow got kicked out.

“Janina can throw!” Coach announced. Bella, our usual throw-inner, gave her a funny look and picked up the ball.

“Let me!” she hissed.

I was silent for a moment and then whispered to Bella, “Just give her a chance.” Coach heard, because she gave Bella a strict nod.

Using one of my best soccer talents—losing a defender, I became open for Janina to throw.

For a second, my tiny spark of a hope that Janina could throw the ball accurately was gone. But then I decided I had nothing to lose. Janina threw the ball. For one millisecond, I was caught by surprise. It was a perfect throw-in! Then my soccer instinct kicked in and I dribbled the ball once, twice, and shot. I pulled my foot back to kick. Each second stretched itself into a year. My friendship with Janina flashed before my eyes. My soccer career flashed before my eyes. The two flashbacks merged, and the ball soared towards the goal’s top left corner. The crowd oohed and ahhed.

The ball bounced off the post and the whistle blew.

From that moment on, our team was one. One team that understood ohana. One team that understood we were only as strong as our weakest link. One team that understood and still understands that to win, we have to be one. And in the end… winning isn’t what really matters. What really matters is ohana.

The biggest win Caelen McQuilkin
Caelen McQuilkin, 13
Lee Vining, California

The biggest win Ester Luna
Ester Luna, 12
Washington, DC