This is Grant's first year playing, and Joy's third. When she was four, she dominated her little soccer league, once scoring ten goals in a single game. But her last experience in Worland was very poor when, as a five year old girl, she was competing against eight-year old boys twice her size. She hardly ever touched the ball, and became quite timid as a result. For most of this season during games, that timidity persisted. When all the girls would bunch up around the ball, she would back away rather than rush in, and though she has a strong leg, she would pull the string on her kicks and never get much power into them.
This was very frustrating for her Daddy to watch, and it has led to numerous backyard soccer sessions. After struggling to find a way to motivate her to release her inner beast, I conjured up this little motivational gem: the Thunder Crack. "Rush to the ball," I enthused. "Plant your left foot, swing your right foot like a hammer, and then crack the ball with thunder." For whatever reason, she seemed to get this, and her kicks took on a lot more power.
But it wasn't translating into shots-on-goal in her games. Ironically, part of the problem was that she was doing a particular soccer skill too well: playing her position. She would linger in her lane on her side of the field rather than pursue the ball, which is good, but her teammates would be unable to pass her the ball.
So much of soccer is about timing, and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Joy and I started a little mental imagery game: Imagine that you're playing your position, when the ball pops out of the crowd and rolls in front of the goal. You rush to the ball faster than anyone else, and without stopping, you plant your foot, crack it with thunder, and it rockets past the goalie and curls into the back of the net. I'd have her close her eyes, breathe deep, and try and make this scene come to life. We did this last Thursday morning on the short ride to school. She giggled and rolled her eyes, but played along.
Skip to her make-up game that night. She played well as the right striker, though her team was losing. Mid-way through the second half, the ball was on the other side of the field trapped in a gaggle of girls. Joy stayed true to her position, when suddenly one of her teammates broke away with the ball and made a nice (and unexpected) crossing pass. Joy broke free. I could sense in her body language the rush of realization: this was her image come to life. She burst towards the ball as it crossed forty feet in front of the goal. Without slowing, she planted her foot and cracked the ball. It shot underneath the goalie. Joy watched the ball curl in the back of the net and stared in disbelief for a split second, then leaped off the ground in pure exuberance. It wasn't just a good goal. It was a great goal, an actual pass and a thunderous strike. Her teammates were rushing in a bouncing herd to hug her when she looked up to catch her parents on the sideline, where her Daddy was trying to keep his tears hidden.
But that wasn't the watershed event . That came two days later in her final game of the season, when she came crashing out of the gate like a little woman possessed. Having tasted goal-scoring glory, it was clear she wanted more. She smelled blood in the water. In the first half, she had four solid shots on goal that narrowly missed. But early in the second half, she upped the ante in aggressiveness. The ball bounced in front of the goal, and the goalie came out to grab it. It was a play that, nearly 100% of the time, the other girls back off the ball, nobody pursues it, and the goalie just scoops it up. But not this time. Joy rushed in, got to the ball a split second before the goalie and cracked it again. It careened off the goalie's legs and bounced into the net.
She still wasn't done. For the rest of the second half, she relentlessly pursued the ball and got a few more good shots on goal. She looked like a one-girl wrecking crew out on the field. With just a couple minutes left in the game, she stole the ball from deep on her side of the field. She juked, dribbled left and right and wove through the entire defense, and when she got to the right side of the goalie box, she angled a shot in stride that ripped into the near side of the net. It was, to me at least, a spectacular play: speed, dexterity, athleticism, aggressiveness, tenacity, timing, and power all rolled into one long, glorious run down the field. She celebrated, but this time seemed to be a tad subdued, the calmness of a girl who's already done that, and who plans on doing it again and again.
Four nights later, I took her to see the super-talented Chatfield girls soccer team win the state championship, (with the winning goal scored by none other than the speedy Callie Hancock, daughter of our former next door neighbors, Ralph and Robin.) As we watched the girls dance on the field with the championship trophy, Joy looked at me and said, "I'm going to do that someday."
A father can only dream. But a little tiger lilly might make actually make it happen.
You go, girl.