We Are the Wildcats - Siobhan Vivian Page 0,1

minutes later, Coach blows his whistle. It takes the girls’ brains a few nauseating seconds to register they are no longer in motion.

If this were any other day of varsity tryouts, the girls would now pause for a quick water break while Coach handed out mesh pinnies in either white or navy for a scrimmage. Scrimmages are how Coach works through a Rubik’s Cube of roster possibilities, swapping players in and out of potential lines and positions, whittling these forty or so hopefuls down to his final squad of twenty.

Except today there will be no scrimmage.

There never is on the final day of tryouts.

Instead, the seniors drop their sticks and immediately set off on another mile run around the field’s perimeter, a thunder of tanned, toned legs. They are trailed by any juniors and sophomores who have endured this annual tradition before.

It always takes the new girls a few seconds to realize what’s happening. Some are already chugging water, some have gone to their bags for a towel to wipe their sweat or—the brave ones—to sneak a discreet look at their phones. Once they do realize, they sprint off in a panic to catch up to the pack. This elicits a chuckle from the experienced girls, but then it’s right back to business. There are twenty-five more push-ups, twenty-five more crunches, twenty-five more scissors, and another set of suicide sprints to complete.

It is 9:00 a.m.

Another whistle. Coach calls for “Shuttle!” next.

Groups of six girls quickly line up to sprint, receive, pass, sprint, receive, pass, sprint, receive, pass for fifteen minutes, until Coach’s next whistle starts the warm-ups over again, their third mile run, twenty-five more push-ups, twenty-five more crunches, twenty-five more scissors, and another set of suicide sprints.

At nine thirty he calls out “Clover!” and the cycle begins anew.

At ten, “Forehand Fades!”

At ten thirty, “Snake!”

They are ants scurrying under his magnifying glass. Every move examined, dissected. Coach shouts for them to keep their form, to increase their speed, to stay sharp, to dig deep. This despite the girls’ passes becoming sloppier, dragging as they grind on, the sun now searing high above them. The entire field gets unsettlingly quiet, save for the wooden slap of sticks against sticks, the pounding of cleats on turf, the groans of fatigue. And, of course, the trill of Coach’s unrelenting whistle.

The girls give everything they’ve got, knowing Coach doesn’t ask of them what he doesn’t believe, deep down, they can deliver.

So they deliver.

That’s Coach’s magic.

That’s why the Wildcats win, year after year after year. Waist-high trophies. Team pictures on the front page of the local newspaper. Invitations to play around the country. Full-ride scholarships to Ivy League universities.

At eleven, “Chop Shots!”

At eleven thirty, “Triangles!”

Through portholes wiped in the fogged-up windows of the weight room, the varsity football players watch the girls, jaws hanging slack and stupefied. To them, and the student body at large, there’s something cultish and unsettling about the varsity girls field hockey team. Their devotion, their focus, their unquestioning commitment to Coach and to one another. For the duration of their season, their squad is impenetrable.

It should be said that West Essex’s football team has not made it to states in over a decade. Their last championship banner hangs dusty and faded from the gymnasium rafters. Yet it never strikes the boys as odd that they still dominate the fall pep rally, always announced last by the principal. The boys don’t question if they’ve actually earned the bleacher-stomping applause that beckons them, dressed in their jerseys and jeans, to burst through banners of butcher paper. Their arms simply lift in V shapes at varying intervals, summoning the student body to their feet. A reflex.

Boys default to kings. Their sovereign right to rule is never questioned.

The football players wait to be noticed, eager for their gaze to have some kind of effect on the field hockey girls, preferably embarrassment. That the girls never do annoys them, and eventually, they retreat from the windows. A silent acknowledgment that this is one kingdom beyond their reach.

This is why the field hockey girls would live on this field forever if they could. This blessed rectangle where their worth is wholly quantifiable, statistical, analytic black and white. How incredibly freeing it is to live a few hours each day where they don’t worry about being beautiful or sweet or modest or smart or funny or feminine. The only thing required of them here is to play their absolute best.

And so, on this day, one girl always