by Andrea Montalbano
It's not easy to find your place in the world, especially when you're a kid.
___Lily James knew that well: she was twelve now, and it had taken her a whole ten years to find her place. Ten years is a decade, one-tenth of a century, to be exact, and a century is, no doubt, a super-long time.
___In case you're wondering, her place in the world isn't the sanctuary of her purple and red bedroom, or in Mrs. Krugman's seventh-grade English class, or even in the secret nook of her excellent tree fort: it's where she feels as comfortable as her old sneakers, as safe as under her comfy blanket and best of all, like a star.
___Her place was on the soccer field. Any soccer field.
____________Lily James loved everything about it.
___She lived to run, she ached to kick and she adored tackling, legally, of course, and never from behind. She thrilled at the pounding of her heart as she sprinted toward the goal, the black and white ball floating in front and the wind rushing past her ears, created solely by the movement of her own pumping arms and legs. She adored the smell of the grass and the fall colors in the trees all around, waving and falling like a
million crazed fans. Soccer made her feel alive and important, because best of all, she could play.
___In fact, if she were allowed to play soccer all day long, that's all she would do. She couldn't-school and sleeping and eating got in the way, and the winter made it tough. But other than that, the field was her place, the ball was her friend and soccer was her game.
___It was hard to believe that she played her first real game for the Brookville Bombers Travel Team just two years ago. She could still remember the tingly feeling in her gut in the seconds before the referee, Mr. White, blew the whistle that very first game. A magical tension hung in the air-every girl had stood staring at the ball-just waiting. Waiting for the sound that would release them. At least that's how it felt to
Lily that very first time. She'd eyed the regulation size 4 ball and in that leather orb she'd found herself and her special place.
___Two years later, Lily was more experienced, but the wondrous anticipation remained the same. So far, this year's season had been incredible. Her team was 6-0, and on track to become league champions. Lily could still feel the bitter bite of last year's defeat in the finals. This year, she would settle for nothing less than the sweet taste of victory.
___But trouble was coming before the morning's game even started: the referee was a father from the opposing team. That was never good news. Lily eyed him suspiciously but quickly put her gaze on the ball when she saw him draw a breath. She studied Maggie McNulty, the Riderdale Red Rockets' striker, who was resting her foot in a haughty way, making Lily wonder what was going on in that ponytailed head of hers. Would she
go forward and attack, or would she pass the ball back to the center midfielder to blast upfield?
___Lily's best friend, Vee Merino, was perched on the other side of the field's center circle, ready to pounce. She moved her head imperceptibly, and Lily nodded back. Vee was fearless, and Lily loved that about her. Even though she was pretty small compared to the rest of the players, when it came to Vee, size didn't matter. She was all courage. The ref finally exhaled and the whistle sounded in a sharp beep. The
game was on.
___Maggie tapped the ball to her teammate, who was immediately chased down by a dark-haired girl in a navy blue and yellow Bombers uniform. Vee the Bee. Buzzing in. The girl with the ball, a redhead with fair skin and a startled expression, looked around for a Rocket. No one was open. Flustered, she dribbled blindly for a moment as Vee pressed her attack. Then, turning around, she did the smart thing and passed the ball back to
her own side of the field.
___The center midfielder was a beefy girl, and Lily knew she had a wicked right foot. Beefy girl made contact, but Lily could tell by the slapping sound that she'd hit it all wrong. Instead of going downfield, the ball went almost straight up like a firework. Lily looked up and saw it wobbling above in a crooked spin, the black and white squares blurring into gray. A girl from the other team stood close, jumping uselessly
while Lily waited patiently, sure the ball would come to her.
___That's just how it was with Lily and soccer. She knew that ball would come to her, and she knew what to do with it when she got it. Off the field she was a regular kid with homework and hang-ups, but on the pitch, she was a soccer magician. Her parents told her she started to kick the very same day she started walking. Her mom liked to point to her belly and say it started even way before that. Any chance she got, Lily
had a ball. Some talents were from practicing all the time, but anyone who ever saw Lily play could tell it was the thing she was born to do.
___The ball descended. The Red Rocket tried to shoulder Lily out of the way, but she stood her ground, protecting her position, and when the ball arrived, she lifted her foot ever so slightly. Catching it tenderly on her laces, she was off like a shot before it ever hit the ground. She moved right to avoid the midfielder and then heard a shout from the left.
___"LJ! I'm open!"
___Lily knew it was Vee calling. She lifted her head for a second and spied her friend making a run down the left. Using her right foot, Lily lifted a pass over another player. Vee trapped the ball and took off toward the goal.
___"Get her!" Lily heard Maggie cry. "She's almost in the box!"
___Lily didn't stop to watch but kept running full speed ahead, trying to find an open space to give Vee an option. Two other blue and yellow uniforms were speeding along the sides of the fields, and the red team was in shock. They weren't ready for this quick attack.
___"Cross, Vee!" Lily cried as she charged across the eighteen-yard line-the penalty box. Anyone tripped by the defense in the box got a penalty kick. Just you and the goalie-one whistle, one shot.
___Lily called again and Vee delivered a beautiful waist-high pass. Lily trapped the ball with her thigh and turned to shoot, but something caught her foot, and instead of making contact she fell straight to the ground, getting a mouth full of dirt.
___She waited for the whistle but instead heard the referee shout, "Play on!"
___Play on? Lily couldn't believe it. She had been tripped. She was about to score! Instead of getting a penalty kick, the game went on and she was left face-first on the ground tasting earthworm grit. She could hear her coach going ballistic.
___"Hey!" Lily yelled, spitting out the mud. "Psssahk!! She tripped me!"
___The red team goalie had the ball now and was about to launch it back upfield. Lily saw her smirk.
___"Ref!" Lily yelled again. She deserved that penalty kick. She was the team expert and had already won two games on PKs this season. A fair call would basically guarantee her team a goal.
___But the referee boomed, "Another word out of you and I'll give you a yellow!" Lily bit her lip and brushed herself off. Arguing with the man in black was a serious no-no. Two yellow cards and you were out of the game for good. Vee trotted over and helped Lily up.
___"You okay?" she asked. "Keep your cool, LJ."
___"I'm tryin'," Lily said, taking a deep breath. She wiped her mouth on her undershirt. "We should have scored."
___"Don't worry, LJ, we'll get 'em."
___Lily heard her coach hollering from the sidelines, "Get back in the game, LJ!"
___The goalie punted upfield. Lily was convinced a terrible injustice had occurred, but there was nothing she could do about it. She knew her coach, Chris, was right: she had to get back into the game. She couldn't let her temper get the best of her again. Lifting her head, Lily jogged back toward her own goal, unable to shake off the feeling she'd just been robbed.
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