Some readers complain, not without reason, that this blog tends to be rather negative. And yet, as most regulars know, I am not a negative or pessimistic individual. As a matter of fact, I quite enjoy my daily life and I am thankful every single day for the small joys that fill them.
One of them was today. The last three soccer seasons have been rough on Ender, as our small, but successful club merged with two larger ones, he had to learn how to play for coaches to whom he was not related, (and more problematic, were considerably less disciplined and brilliant), he was injured, he was ill, and finally, he transferred clubs. His injuries cost him an entire season, which set him back badly, and the preference for giant adult-sized goalies meant that he had no choice but to move to a position on the field for which he was ill-prepared if he wanted to continue to play soccer.
But he has stubbornly persevered throughout. Last year, he made the change from third-string goalie who wasn’t on the game squad to utility midfielder who only got to play in one indoor tournament and one friendly. This year, thanks to the short-term ineligibility of a starting midfielder, he was named to the game squad and brought in as a defensive substitute at halftime of the first game. He made many mistakes, but even so, managed to completely shut down the opponent’s star striker, who had scored three goals in the first half.
After a long, post-game family lecture on the concept of “contingency” utilizing the white board – a defender must mark his man until a more imminent threat to goal presents itself, at which point the defender must immediately leave his man in order to attack the threat – he improved enough in the second half of the second game to merit starting the third one. After each game, we reviewed his mistakes and successes, then discussed how those mistakes could be avoided in the next game.
By the fourth game, he was not only starting, but returning in the second half to play central defense when the defensive captain needed a break. There were, of course, ups and downs as the season progressed, such the frenetic and ultimately disastrous melee in front of goal that inspired this in-game dialogue.
Vox: “You’re panicking under pressure. Look where you clear the ball, don’t just kick it. You have to calm down.”
Ender: “You’re not HELPING!”
But despite a few setbacks, Ender’s performance improved to the point that the opponents began to focus their attack down the other side and he began being able to start moving forward to support the attack. On more than one occasion, he managed to take the ball from the opposing attacker, beat a midfielder, then hit a friendly attacker with a long pass leading to a corner kick or a goal. By the end of the first half of the season, he was not only starting on the defense’s left side, but playing most of the second half as well, being recognized as the team’s second-best defender.
Still, things did not look good for his team leading up to the last game in the championship. They had lost two games in a row to the first- and second-place teams, and the defensive captain first got into a fight with Ender, then got into a (very foolhardy) fight with the (very oversized) first-string goalie before being thrown out of the last practice by the coach, who also happened to be his father.
But the final game of the autumn half got off to a good start today as Jet, the team’s best player, uncharacteristically managed to finish cleanly in the first minute of the game. The opponents came right back, however, and attacked down the right side, passing the ball past the outnumbered central defender to a striker running onto the ball. The striker had a very good angle to beat the goalie and took a hard shot… only to have it blocked by Ender coming off his man at exactly the right moment.
Ten minutes later, his team had scored twice more and the game was all but over. At one point, a speedy attacker beat him around the left side, the defensive captain moved over to help, and Ender immediately peeled off to cover the captain’s vacant position in the center. The captain won the ball, passed the ball up the field, and the two boys smoothly switched positions again. The coach just shook his head.
“Those two don’t like each other, but they sure play well together.”
Over the course of the game, Ender created two goals and three corners with his passing, and more importantly, shut down nearly every attack attempted down the left side. (This is significant in youth soccer, since most kids are right-footed and it’s much harder for them to score if they can’t attack from what is their right.) The final score was 12-0, which meant that his team not only finished the first half of the championship on a positive note, but in fourth place as well. They may not be able to compete with the two best teams, but they are in no danger of relegation and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they claimed third place by the end of the season.
It is a warm and sunny autumn day. Ender is happy and proud of himself. I am proud of him too, not just because he played well, but because of the character he has shown in overcoming adversity. These may be small joys, they may be small and trivial successes, but they are no less joyful for all of that. And I am no less grateful to God for the opportunity to see and share them.