Noel seemed to hang in the air for a second before crashing into the ground. The grass rushed up to meet him as his lungs were crushed by the impact. Dazed, Noel looked around. The soccer ball was snatched away quickly as the opposition took control. The stifled laughs that followed made Noel wish he were dead. Slowly, like so many times before, he stood and walked away No one intervened.
History seems to like repeating itself, thought Noel bitterly. The same thing had happened yesterday And the day before that. Just as Noel was finding his stride in the soccer game, one of the kids would do something to humiliate him. Noel never said a word. He just picked himself up and walked away.
They aren't mean, thought Noel dejectedly I'm just not one of them.
But I'm strong, thought Noel. I can wait it out. Once I make the soccer team I can meet some new people. But as the bell rang, Noel couldn't help but wish that he had at least one friend who could really understand him. Noel walked to the doors, hiding his disappointment at the day's game.
Just as he stepped into the school, Noel saw that lunch was over. He bent down to collect his books for his next class. As he stood, he was suddenly standing face-to-face with a girl from one of his classes. She stood, holding her books, flicking her brown ponytail back over her head, and blocking his path.
"Do you want to get better at soccer?" she asked.
Noel was taken by surprise. "What?"
"Don't you want to show the people out there how good you are?"
Noel had no idea if she was picking on him or joking. Unsure of what to say, he blurted, "Who are you?"
She smiled. "What, you've been here for a week and you still don't know who I am? I'm in your science class, remember? Sarah Nusterwicz sound familiar?"
Now that Noel thought about it, it did. She sat in the row behind him, but they never talked before.
"Well? Do you?" Sarah looked expectantly at him. "I could teach you some stuff."
Sarah smiled again. "Just meet me here after school, OK? I want to help you."
Noel was surprised at the sudden conversation. He just stared as she turned and headed off.
* * *
The bell rang, and immediately a scurry of papers and books drowned out the teacher's last words. Kids rushed out of the classroom, eager to chat with their friends and enjoy the rest of the day Noel went to his locker and got his bag. Hefting it on his shoulder, he walked slowly down the hall.
Noel saw her leaning at a corner of the hallway near the doors to the fields and courts. Her book bag was at her feet, and she was gracefully juggling a soccer ball. It hopped from her knees to her feet, then leapt up obediently to her head. Seeing Noel out of the corner of her eye, she let the ball drop to her feet, passing it to Noel.
Noel flicked the ball up, feeling good to be touching a soccer ball again. He juggled it twice on his knees, then passed it back. Sarah caught it in her hands.
"So," she said, "you came. I was afraid you were going to get lost or something. Let's go outside."
Noel followed Sarah out. The weather was bright and sunny, small breezes pushing Noel's hair back as they walked to the field. A perfect day.
"You're new here, right?"
"I've been here for a week and you still don't know that?"
Sarah glanced at him, then laughed. "You learn fast. I hope you learn fast enough to make the team."
Noel stared at her.
"What? You aren't trying out?"
Noel was stung by her remark. "Of course I will! And why would I need your help?"
Sarah turned to face him. "Listen, I've watched you at lunch, and you're pretty good. But right now the other kids know that you're new, so they're taking advantage of you by being over-aggressive. I felt bad and decided that I'd help you."
"What's there to teach me?"
"Well, I'm just saying. There's some things you might want to know before you go try out."
Noel paused for a moment, and then smiled. He decided that he liked her attitude. "Thanks. I guess you're the only person here who has ever noticed me. Do you play soccer, too?”
"Soccer?" scoffed Sarah. "I'm just about the best goalkeeper in our grade, including the boys. Would you like to see?"
She rolled the soccer ball to him, took out some worn goalie gloves from her backpack, and stood in front of the goal, in the natural goalkeeper stance. Noel was incredulous. Shooting on a girl? Noel thought desperately of what to do. He didn't want to make Sarah feel bad if he scored. She seemed like the only friend that Noel would ever have.
But back at his old school, he was always the champion shooter on his team. Penalty kick? No problem. Bending corner kick? A breeze. He flexed his foot. As Noel swung, he glanced at Sarah. Her eyes were riveted on him, unnerving him. The ball shot low and hard towards the goal.
Sarah merely sidestepped and blocked the ball with her foot.
"You're holding back, aren't you?" she said. "Shoot like you were doing at lunch!"
Noel felt himself redden. He decided to go for an upper corner. Going for the upper corners was always his signature at his old school. As long as the ball was still and he had time to prepare, Noel could drill a shot that would match no other. All the goalkeepers at his school would be frozen, watching helplessly as Noel scored with ease.
Noel backed up, taking care not to give away which side he was committed to until the last second. He ran up to the ball, striking the ball perfectly in the center. He didn't put any backspin on it, and he didn't lean back. This was no chip shot. It was a shot he had perfected long ago that combined height and distance without losing power.
Noel had seen Sarah shift her weight as he approached. Now, she had flung herself parallel to the ground, reaching up high with her arm for the corner of the goal. She missed, and the ball caught itself in the net. Sarah fell to the ground. Even though he scored, Noel was stunned at how quick she reacted. She had actually guessed the corner he was shooting at!
Sarah stood up and dusted herself off. "That was pretty good," she admitted.
Noel just gaped. "How did you know what corner I was going for?"
Sarah shrugged. "I looked at the way your hips were pointing. And I guessed that you were going for the upper corner from the way you planted your foot."
"Where did you learn to play keeper like that?"
"Oh, here and there. But mostly from experience."
Sarah tossed her hair back. "OK, how about some ball control? You'll have no trouble with shooting. But you need to be able to dribble, too. Try and get past me with the ball."
Noel took the ball. He rolled the ball between his feet a couple of times to get the feel of it. He dribbled forward, feinting a little with his shoulders. He took a move foreword to the left, and then spurred his heel into the ground to change directions. He flashed towards the right with the ball, tapping it ahead of him. Sarah didn't fall for it. She stuck out her left foot casually and intercepted it.
Noel retrieved it. Trying again, he took several steps forward. Four or five paces later, he swung his leg at the ball, faking the shot and trying for her right side this time. Again, the ball never made it past her.
"You probably should learn some fakes before you try out for the team," commented Sarah. "The coach is all about 'the balance of skill' and stuff like that."
Noel took up a defensive position as Sarah approached with the ball. She swung her leg around the ball but didn't touch it, making Noel lean towards one side. She followed up with a series of scissors, weaving her feet in front and to the side of the ball, barely touching it. Noel tried to follow it all, but his feet ended up being tangled up beneath him. He felt awkward as he desperately lunged with a foot to the right at the last second.
Sarah flashed to the left, at the same time tapping the ball through Noel's outstretched legs. She took the ball up again and dribbled it into the goal. Noel couldn't believe it. He kneeled in defeat. Being nutmegged by a girl! At his school, being able to nutmeg someone and push the ball through their legs was the ultimate way to add insult to injury.
Sarah retrieved the ball and faced Noel. She looked all business.
"So. You could probably impress the coach enough with your shooting, but you need to learn some fakes. Just in case. It's hard to beat anyone one-on-one with speed alone. Fakes are your friend. Watch."
She placed the ball in front of her. "You combine different moves to fake out the opponent. The trick is simple. You make them believe that you'll go one way, and then change direction and sprint the other. Please observe."
She suddenly performed a series of dazzling moves. "That way," she continued, "the person you are trying to get by will never know which way you will go."
She stopped and passed him the ball, grinning. "Well? What are you waiting for? Go home and practice."
* * *
Noel walked home from school, bouncing the soccer ball on the side of the road. How did she do that? Noel mused. She's amazing at soccer. Noel thought of how patient she was when she taught him, too. Tryouts are in one week, thought Noel. I'm glad I met her now.
The next few days, Noel was in his element. At lunch break, he stepped onto the field and smiled. The action began. Noel introduced himself to a few teammates. They didn't seem to mind playing with him. Noel dove in, running shoulder-to-shoulder with a player until he could tap the ball away and gain control. As he did, Noel put on an extra burst of speed. He felt exhilarated. This was what he lived for!
He pounded his feet and ran towards the goal, daring anyone to try and stop him. He feinted and faked as he made his way down. One of the guys who tripped him before stepped before him, halting his charge.
The guy rushed him.
Noel feinted one way, and then ducked the other way, just as Sarah had told him to. He felt the ball slide past the guy before he could react. However, this time, Noel saw the guy reaching out his foot to trip him. He jumped, easily evading him and approaching the goal. Taking a mighty swing, he rocketed the ball into the upper right corner. The goalie stood there, dumbstruck. He didn't even have enough time to react.
Noel turned away, accepting the pats and compliments from his teammates.
Noel turned around to face the goalie.
"You're the new kid, right?"
"Haven't you noticed?"
"Dude!" The goalie was staring wide-eyed at Noel. "You're really good! Where did you learn to kick like that? Are you trying out for the team? They could definitely use someone like you!"
Noel just grinned.
* * *
When the tryouts came up, Noel dismissed any fears he had and played all out. He dominated the field whenever he was on, earning the respect of his classmates. Soon, when people were assigned to guard him, they gave him his space, knowing that he was skilled enough to blow right past them. The highlight of the day involved Noel scoring from five yards off the goalie box. The coach came up to him personally to ask his name.
"You have a great leg there, Noel. Don't break it. We could use someone like you on the team."
Noel laughed. "Yeah," he agreed, "but I couldn't have passed with just that. You need some footwork, too, huh?"
The day closed to a glorious end. The tryouts had given Noel a chance to prove his worth. Sarah was right. People who knew the extent of his skill now feared him on the field. Walking back, he spotted Sarah.
Catching up to her, he faced her squarely "Thanks. I don't think I would have made the team without you."
"Oh, please," Sarah laughed, "I saw you out there. You did pretty well. Just don't mess up in your first game. I'll be watching."
Noel smiled. He had practice starting tomorrow, with the rest of the team. It felt good to know that he was a part of a group again. Sarah had brought him back to life. For Noel, being at school as the "new kid" was officially over.