The last day of the season

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When I think about the conference tournament that ended the season, I think of the word melancholy, which I’ve always thought meant “a feeling of loss in a moment that should be nothing but happy.”

To quickly get to the end of a long story (and a boring story for anyone who isn’t invested in it, I’m sure), it was a seven-against-seven tournament, and the two boys teams we fielded made it to the semi-finals, and the only girls team we fielded made it to the finals.

With Boys Team 1 watching from the sidelines, Boys Team 2 played a team form Jeju. The Jeju team had shocked Boys Team 1, the team I thought to be the slightly better of our two, in tournament’s the morning group stage.

I issued what I hoped was a chill-inducing warning to Boys Team 2. “You are better than this team. But the better team doesn’t always win the game – your teammates on the other team saw that.”

When I think about the conference tournament that ended the season, I think of the word melancholy, which I’ve always thought meant “a feeling of loss in a moment that should be nothing but happy.”

To quickly get to the end of a long story (and a boring story for anyone who isn’t invested in it, I’m sure), it was a seven-against-seven tournament, and the two boys teams we fielded made it to the semi-finals, and the only girls team we fielded made it to the finals.

With Boys Team 1 watching from the sidelines, Boys Team 2 played a team form Jeju. The Jeju team had shocked Boys Team 1, the team I thought to be the slightly better of our two, in tournament’s the morning group stage.

I issued what I hoped was a chill-inducing warning to Boys Team 2. “You are better than this team. But the better team doesn’t always win the game – your teammates on the other team saw that.”

They won, 2-1, if I remember correctly. It was easy – I know I’m remembering that correctly.

To win in their semifinal game would not be easy for Boys Team 1, though, and we all knew it. Boys Team 1 played a team from an international school in Busan. There players were all from Europe, and all had the soccer gene which I haven’t found a European male to be without: running was a grimace-ful chore for them, they didn’t seem particularly athletic, but they all owned technical skills and then some, even their stocky center midfielder, and knew soccer, at its heart, was a contact sport. We’d lost to them 1-0 in the first match, for which I was only bodily present for ten minutes of (Some of the girls and boys games happened at the same time and, judging that of the boys and girls the boys were more likely to be able to win without my coaching, I’d decided in the beginning of the day to go to the girls games in such instances and send the assistant coach to manage the boys). Their goal in that game came during that first ten minutes, though, when their forward scooped a ball over our defensive line right to the feet of the aforementioned stocky center midfielder, who volleyed it sickeningly perfectly into our goal’s top corner.

In the moment before this rematch, both boys teams huddled.

“Even though you’re on two different teams today, we’ve been one team all season, and we’re still one team right now,” I said. They prayed  before every game, and this time when we did, in our circle, each boy’s arms were around the two people to his left and right.

And then, we all forgot about God (at least I did). The whistle blew and the teams became the soccer equivalent of two Rottweilers tearing each other apart in a pit, and I was my team’s deranged, money-strapped owner, going completely mental.

“Get to that ball, get to that ball, GET TO THAT BALL!”

“Forwards – HELP BAAAAACK!”

“REF! REF! DAMN IT! YOU, YOUR ASSISTANTS, AND ALL OF YOUR FAMILIES ARE A DISGRACE!”

Fouls were committed frequently, and, in front of lots of parents, I encouraged our players to foul back, with cleats-up prejudice.

We had the better of the fight. We drove the ball forward several times. Time and again, with last-ditch tackles, they managed to keep us from scoring. But then, one of our forwards, a senior named Alex, who arrived late to the tournament because he was taking some standardized test, and whose body type and skill set I always compared to Dimitar Berbatov’s, beat his marker down the flank, watched as every player on the field streaked in front of the goal face for the cross, and then ripped a low shot straight at the goalie at the near post. It exploded through the goalie’s legs and into the net, Alex shot off in a celebratory run to somewhere, and his teammates and I sounded the biggest collective barbaric Yawp! ever heard in Incheon, South Korea.

Busan attacked for their lives, we defended for our lives…and we lived. We played ourselves in the final. But, in spirit, the semi-finals were each team’s championship game, and our teams had won both of them.

I’ll never forget that 1-0 semi-final win, and I’ll never forget that season with that boys team. When you pray, you’re supposed to strictly talk to God, I think. But in that prayer before that game, broke the rule. I just decided then was the time to say something I’d wanted to say to them all season: I’d been around soccer for 18 years, playing and coaching and watching, and they were the best high school team I had ever seen. I wasn’t lying.

And yet, there was the girls final.

At my Christian school, at meetings, during the semester each teacher always has to share a Bible verse and explain why they like it – a devotion. This was my devotion, two Fridays after that tournament, titled “Geraldine, Slayer of the Philistines”:

 “Isaiah 55:8-9

8“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I think this passage means we don’t understand God’s thoughts.

I thought I understood God’s thoughts enough to know, though, that he didn’t care about sports. But I think God might have shown me that His ways and plans can come in any form – sports included.

This season, I helped coach a sport at this school – soccer.

Both teams had their end-of-the-season tournament two Saturdays ago. The girls made it to the championship game. They played a great game against a really good team but with five minutes left in the game, the other team scored to go up 1-0.

Everyone thought we were definitely going to lose. We had played lots of games that day – over 100 minutes of soccer in total. We were probably in the worst shape of any team – we only practice twice a week on a tiny field. We did have the best player in the tournament: Geraldine Kim. But the other coach knew how good she was and just had two of his girls do nothing but follow her around. And she wasn’t full of energy after all those games that day, either. If anyone thought we could score they weren’t thinking very clearly.

It was the last minute of the game. All of a sudden, about 20 meters from the goal, the ball somehow bounced to her feet – and somehow the girls defending her weren’t right next to her. She touched the ball forward, swung as hard as she could, and the ball shot off her foot like a cannonball into the back of the net.

I’ve always thought that God doesn’t care about sports. He would never, say, make the ball roll a certain way so one team could win. He has more important things on his mind. Our players prayed before every game on Saturday, and the players from the other teams probably didn’t care. They thought the same thing I did, that just because we prayed it didn’t mean that God was on our side, or something. But after that goal by Geraldine, all of our players fell down on their knees, folded their hands, and bowed their heads. It was a surreal scene to me, and I got this overwhelming feeling that all these people who all day had felt positive that God wasn’t real or, if He was real, wasn’t on our side, were suddenly not so sure. And I wasn’t so sure anymore, either, that God didn’t care about sports. If God knew that by guiding a soccer ball to Geraldine’s feet, giving her space to shoot, and giving her tired right leg a moment of Sampson’s strength to score that goal from 20 meters away, if God knew that by doing all that, a crowd of people would believe for a second in miracles, might He not spare a second of His time to help our girls soccer team?

Before Geraldine’s goal, I would have said, “No.” Now, I’m not sure – and I feel like I might have been wrong to think that God doesn’t care about everything. I think he might care about soccer.

Editor’s Note: The GVCS Lady White Tigers Soccer Team lost the game, in a penalty shootout. Tears were seen in the eyes of Geraldine, her teammates, and maybe even in the eyes of some of the people watching, who felt that it was really something to have experienced the moment of Geraldine’s miracle goal.”

That was my devotion. That penalty shootout I mentioned in the Editor’s Note was terrible. Three players from each team had to shoot. Our three players, our three best players, made their penalties, but our goalkeeper didn’t stop any of their team’s penalty shots. They chose a fourth player for the sudden death round  – and our goalkeeper couldn’t stop that penalty. I chose our fourth player, a freshman named Diana. She missed.

It was terrible. Everyone was crying – Diana, another freshman who didn’t play a second in that game, Geraldine, Chloe, our great defender Ashley, Diana the goalkeeper who had failed to save a penalty shot – everyone. I just put my hand on girl’s backs and said, “It’s okay,” but it never seemed to comfort any of them. During this season, I loved coaching the girls team so much that I decided a new life dream of mine was to have a little girl and coach her soccer team. But, how can I do that? How can I do that if there’s a chance she’ll miss a penalty kick and I’ll hug her and she’ll still feel no better? When there’s the certainty that she’ll have much worse trials than missed penalty kicks? There’s an obvious answer, maybe: because she’ll have lots of chances to do so many more happy things. But, even knowing about those happy things…

There was a photo shoot a week or so before that tournament so now I am in lots of pictures with these boys and girls. When I’m too old to play soccer, too old even to coach, hopefully I’ll still have those pictures. My mom saw them and said, “This is a nice keepsake.”

Around midnight, we got back to the school. We got in a circle in the parking lot and I said another prayer – sort of. I broke the rule again, becauseI just sort of talked to everyone. I said, “The other coaches and I, we’ll always remember this season.”



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