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A shrill whistle brought the activity on the basketball court to a halt as the players froze in place.
“Dawn,” Kelley walked towards the player. “Look around, you’ve three defenders hanging all over you. You can’t possible expect to be able to do anything. Look. Marcie and Pete were both open with easy shots. Use your head. Let’s run the play again.”
It was Friday of the first week of camp and Kelley and Marcie were running the players through a variety of plays while Pat watched from an upper tier of seats. Three players had already had their names erased off the marker board in the locker room and Pat was set to cut another half dozen by the end of the day. She was watching the players on the floor carefully.
On the court, ten players had been split into offensive and defensive teams. The remaining players sat on the benches lining the court waiting for their chance to play. Marcie was playing point guard for the offensive team; Sherry was guarding her for the defensive as they ran through the plays from the half court line. Dawn was playing high post for Marcie’s team.
Marcie dribbled up the right side of the court before firing a pass to Dawn.
This time when Dawn spun around to face the basket and the defenders sagged towards her, she flipped a lazy pass in the direction of Val who was cutting through the key.
Sherry, anticipating Dawn’s pass, left Marcie as soon as she had released the ball to Dawn and cut for the key. Her eyes on the pass, Sherry didn’t see another of the tryout players on her team step between Val and the ball. Sherry and the girl collided, both tumbling to the floor as the ball passed untouched over their heads to Val who took one bounce before banking the ball off the backboard into the basket.
Again the whistle froze players in place.
Dawn snickered as Sherry and the other girl were forced to remain sprawled out on the floor until the coach told them to get up.
“Sherry,” Kelley studied the prone player. “Aren’t you a little out of position?”
“Yes, coach,” Sherry nodded, embarrassed. She tried to see what Pat was doing but the coach was sitting in shadows and she couldn’t make out much more than her shape.
“If you had stayed with your assignment,” Kelley continued, “Debbie would have intercepted that pass. Instead, you just gave up two easy points.”
“Sorry, coach,” Sherry muttered mad at herself.
“Get up,” Kelley told the women. “Dawn, is there something humorous about all of this?” she asked the snickering player.
Dawn just shrugged.
Kelley signaled for the ball to be passed to her. As soon as it was in her hands, she rifled a pass at Dawn.
Unprepared for the pass, Dawn threw her hands up to protect herself. The ball smacked into her arms before ricocheting off across the court. “That’s what we call a pass,” Kelley spoke to the entire group of players. Not a wounded duck flipped across the court. You better learn how to make them and how to catch them because nothing less will be accepted. Okay you teams take a breather, the next two teams are up.”
As they exchanged places with the waiting players, Dawn walked up beside Sherry. “Nice fall,” she laughed. “Didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
“No,” Sherry said, rubbing her elbow that had taken most of the blow.
“Too bad,” Dawn sneered. Bumping her shoulder into Sherry, she strode past to a take a seat on the bench.
Pat watched the exchange, anger building in the pit of her stomach over Dawn’s treatment of Sherry. “Damn,” she blew out a long breath, reaching for her water bottle. “It’s just part of the game,” she reminded herself. “Why are you taking it so personally?” A whistle blowing sent her attention back down to the new group of players on the floor.
Sherry entered the locker room after completing her free throw practice. Since high school she had made it a habit to shoot one hundred free throws before and after every practice and game. The habit had paid off with one of the highest made free throw percentage in college. More than half of the points she had scored at Western Arizona had come from the charity line.
As she had done every day since camp began, Sherry stopped in front of the hand written poster tacked to the wall of the locker room.
‘More games are
lost at the free throw line
than won at the 3 point line.’
“Aren’t you going to look?”
Sherry turned at the sound of the voice. Marcie was picking up discarded towels that had been tossed about the room.
“Afraid to,” Sherry shrugged. “I made some bonehead mistakes out there today.”
“You weren’t the only one.”
“Coach barely talked to me today,” Sherry had missed the usual early morning banter she and Pat had shared before the rest of the players began to arrive.
“It’s always hard on Coach when she has to make cuts,” Marcie explained. “Go ahead and look. I think you’ll be surprised.”
Sherry took a couple of hesitate steps towards the front of the room, her eyes scanning down the list of guards. There were a few blank spots that hadn’t been there that morning but at the bottom of the list Sherry Gallagher was still listed. “Damn,” she released her held breath. “I don’t believe it.”
“You got past the easy week,” Marcie sat in one of the chairs, stretching her legs out on another one. “It gets a lot tougher from here.”
“If this was an easy week,” Sherry flipped a chair around to face Marcie and dropped into it. “I sure hate to imagine what the next few are like.” She looked questioningly at Marcie when she received no response and was surprised to see the assistant coach seemed to be struggling with herself.
Marcie debated saying what she was about to but figured the player had earned it after the effort she had given the past five days. One thing was for sure, Sherry was about the only player that had given all she had all week. What she lacked in talent she had made up for with hard work which probably explained why her name was still listed on the marker board.
“Listen,” Marcie began after deciding to say what was on her mind. “I wasn’t in favor of you coming to camp but you proved me wrong. Now I’m not saying you’ll make the team but I am saying you made an impression with the effort you gave this week. Believe me I’ve seen lots of players go through this camp but I haven’t seen many who worked as hard as you have. So,” Marcie pushed the chair out from under her legs with one foot then stood up, “good luck. You keep working as hard as you did this week and who knows,” she shrugged as she turned to walk through the door to the offices.
“Thanks, coach,” Sherry told the retreating woman, a beaming smile spreading across her face.
“I wouldn’t count too much on that,” Dawn smirked, stepping out from the shower room. Her hair was wet and she had a towel wrapped around her still dripping body.
Sherry had had enough of the larger woman’s attitude and decided now was as good as any to put an end to it. She leaned back in the chair, crossing her arms across her chest. “I don’t get it, Dawn,” she addressed the player now leaning against a row of lockers, the smirk still firmly in place on her face. “I’ve never done anything to you, at least not that I know of. So why do you say the things you to do me?”
“Because you’re not good enough for this game. Hell, you weren’t good enough for the amateur league. You played at a nothing high school and a nothing college. You never even made it to the NCAA tournament, not even the first round,” she sneered. “You’re wasting everyone’s time being here.” As she talked, Dawn whipped the towel off and started to dress. “Maybe now I’ll get a locker,” she mumbled, pulling dry clothes out of her sports bag.
Ignoring the last remark, Sherry said, “Coach doesn’t seem to agree with you. My name is still up there,” she casually pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “Guess I must be good enough.”
“Like I care what an old, has-been that can barely walk has to say,” Dawn sneered. “Blew her knee out, my ass. More likely she choked at the prospect of going pro and came up with the story to cover her sorry ass.”
“You know, Dawn,” Sherry stood, her head shaking slowly side-to-side. “It’s too bad you don’t put the energy on the court that you exert hating people. Maybe if you did, you’d be the player you could be.”
“Advice from a wanna-be,” Dawn laughed. “Just what I need.” She shoved the clothes she had worn during practice into her bag and zipped it closed. “See ya, Monday, wanna-be. Let’s see if your name is still up at the end of the week.” As she walked by the marker board, she dragged her finger through Sherry’s name. “Fat chance,” she snorted as she walked out of the room.
“Lost cause,” Sherry mumbled, walking back to her locker. She forced Dawn and her unreasonable anger out of her mind as she undressed. Moments later she was standing under a stream of hot water, letting the warmth soak into her tired muscles and wondering how she would spend her first weekend in Missoula.
Some time later, Pat walked through the locker room on her way out for the night and saw the damage that had been done to Sherry’s name. “Why do I get the feeling that Dawn had something to do with this?” she said to the empty room, picking up the eraser in the tray at the bottom of the marker board. She erased the name completely then rewrote it in her neat lettering.
Pat stepped off the trail when she reached the site of the old chimney. She walked the few steps down to the creek and quickly made her way across the trickle of water to the clear ground on the opposite side. Slipping her day pack off, she placed it on the ground then settled on a small boulder. Stretching her legs out in front of her, she loosened the velco straps on her knee brace enough for her to slide the brace off her knee and down her leg to her ankle.
“That feels better,” Pat sighed, rubbing the knee to relieve some of the pain.
She reached for her pack, lifting it into her lap. She pulled a baggie of baby carrots out of the pack then set the heavy pack back on the ground. She could have used a smaller pack for her day hiking but she had learned it was better to be safe when hiking in the mountains around Missoula. Weather could change instantaneously from a clear sky to a downpour and she had been caught more than once by Mother Nature’s mood swings. So she carried a complete change of clothing, first aid kit, extra knee brace, light jacket, baseball cap, and a pair of gators along with water and snacks. Of course, the wildflower book and book with photos of various animal scat added to the pack’s weight but she liked to know what she was looking at when she came across something new.
Leaning back, Pat turned her face skyward and closed her eyes. She breathed in a lungful of clean air and smiled. She liked this spot. A small clearing was shading by tall ponderosa pine trees. At the edge of the clearing and alongside Spring Creek, a rock chimney had been built by unknown settlers over a hundred years ago. It was all that remained of a family’s homestead in the mountains north of Missoula now known as the Rattlesnake National Recreational Area.
Several trails criss-crossed the mountains but most who came to the area kept to the main trail that followed the Rattlesnake Creek. Pat like to hike the side trails where she encountered few people and could spend a few hours enjoying the scenery at her own pace. She had just about finished off the baggie of carrots when she heard someone coming up the trail.
Sherry tightened the laces of her hiking boots before retrieving the fanny pack that carried two bottles of water and a few energy bars from the back seat of the car she had borrowed from Val Jensen.
Before coming to Cougar camp, Pat had spent hours on the internet researching the recreational opportunities in and around the Missoula Valley. She had happily discovered that there were numerous places to hike both inside the city limits and close by. Anxious to hit the trail, she had asked her teammates one day before practice started, if any were interested in joining her first thing Saturday morning. Most looked at her like she had lost her mind by wanting to get up early on the first day off since camp started. A few threw things at her. Only Val had seemed half-way enthusiastic to the idea.
“Look, rookie,” Val yawned. “You be better to store up that energy for the coming week because if I know Coach, and I do, you will definitely be needing it.”
“I can’t just sit here all weekend,” Sherry complained to the only person still willing to talk to her. The others were sitting around the locker room doing their best to ignore the conversation. “There’s too much I want to see. Besides, who knows how long I may be here,” she hated to think of the possibility she would not make it through the first week. “I don’t want to waste a single day.”
“Okay,” Val could see Sherry’s point. “You have any idea where you want to go?”
“Rattlesnake National Recreational Area,” Sherry almost shouted the answer, so happy was she to find someone interested in going with her.
“Well, first thing you should know,” Val laughed, “is we just call it The Rattlesnake. You got a map of the trails? ‘Cause it’s easy to get turned around up there.”
“Yes, I’ve got this book,” Sherry held up a well-known local hiking book.
“It’s not the best but it’ll do,” Val commented on the rookie’s choice. “How about equipment? Boots? Pack?”
“Got ‘em,” Sherry smiled.
“What about a way to get to the trailhead? It’s not far but you’re not going to want to walk there.”
“Um,” Sherry mumbled, her smile being replaced by a frown.
“Gonna need a ride,” Val smiled. “Look, I don’t particularly want to get out of bed at the crack of dawn Saturday so I’ll let you use my jeep. You can drive, can’t you?”
“Yes,” Sherry said, smiling again.
“Alright, I’ll leave it with you Friday night. You can bring it back on Monday since I don’t see me getting too far from my hot tub this weekend. First week of camp is a real killer for me.”
“Thanks, Val,” Sherry hugged the unsuspecting player. “I really appreciate this.”
“Appreciate it by bringing back my baby with a full tank of gas,” Val extracted herself from the hug. “She’ll be running on fumes by Friday.”
“You’ve got it.”
Sherry adjusted the fanny pack around her waist then picked up the baseball cap resting on the dashboard. Locking the borrowed car’s doors, she headed for the trailhead at the end of the parking area. Since it was early morning, only a few cars occupied the dirt parking lot and Sherry curiously noticed the variety of license plates they carried. Missoula was a college town and students came from all over the country to attend the University. She was surprised to see one vehicle, an older model pickup, with a Missoula Cougar staff sticker on is back bumper. She wondered if one of her teammates had changed their mind about a hike.
Sherry started down the wider than usual trail that had once served as the wagon road used by homesteaders. Off to her right, she could hear the Rattlesnake Creek tumbling down its boulder strewn bed. To her left, a rock face rose a couple hundred feet above the trail. Millions of years before, the stone had been thrust up from the ground bending and cracking the hard surface. She hadn’t walked far before the trail and creek met and several smaller paths began to branch off the main trail.
Sherry decided to take the second trail that branched to the left and followed Spring Creek deeper into the hills. The path took her through the middle of a large meadow before starting a gently climb under the protection of a pine forest. She could hear Spring Creek as it made its way back down the trail to where it joined the waters of the Rattlesnake but she had yet to see it. As she walked, Sherry spotted evidence of the early homesteaders; an old fence post, a tree with a string of barb wire buried in its trunk, a rock foundation. She wondered what life must have been like for those that braved what was then an unknown wilderness.
Sherry noticed a clearing to the side of the trail and what appeared to be a stone structure on the other side of the creek. She stepped of the trail to investigate.
Pat recognized Sherry instantly. Her stomach did a strange flip-flop and she considered leaving before the player saw her. She knew a seldom used path that led away from the ruins to another trail on the other side of the gulch. Or she could just walk back across the creek, acknowledging the player as they passed and make a hasty retreat back down the trail. But before she could decide what to do, Sherry was standing in front of her.
Sherry was more than a little surprised to see her coach sitting on a boulder, a shaft of sun unblocked by the surrounding trees highlighting the woman. Her heart skipped a beat at the sight. “Coach?” she asked, needing confirmation that the beauty in front of her was indeed the same woman that had nearly run her legs off during the past few days.
“Gallagher,” Pat greeted the player, her voice sounding a lot calmer than she was feeling inside. “Beautiful morning for a hike,” she added casually.
“Yes… yes, it is,” Sherry managed to stutter out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was over here. You look like you were meditating or something,” she stumbled over the words. “I’ll leave.”
“No,” Pat said, the word sounding more urgent than she had intended. “I wasn’t meditating,” she told the player. “I just like to sit here. It’s such a peaceful spot. Please stay. That is, if you want,” she added quickly.
“Thanks,” Sherry grinned. “I could use a rest.”
“Altitude getting to you?” Pat asked, concerned the young woman was falling victim to a common predicament for many newcomers to the valley. When Sherry looked at her quizzically she explained, “Missoula valley is around forty-five hundred feet, it’s even higher here in the mountains. Most people who come here don’t realize that so the first few times they go hiking they can overdo things pretty easily.”
“Oh,” Sherry said as she sat on the ground under one of the trees. “Guess that explains my being so tired after a short hike. I’m used to going five or six miles or more back home. But I’ve only gone,” she pulled the pedometer she liked to wear off her waistband, “less than two.”
“That would explain it,” Pat nodded. “You drinking lots of water?”
Sherry held up her fanny pack, showing two empty water bottles to the coach.
“Here,” Pat passed over one of her bottles. “Drink it all if you want, I’ve got more.” She had learned over her years of hiking the local trails that it paid to carry plenty of liquid. She was continually amazed to see people carrying little or none, even families with young children.
“Thanks,” Sherry said after gulping down half of the bottle. “Guess I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been.”
“You shouldn’t be out here at all, Gallagher,” Pat said, her tone harsher than she meant.
Sherry’s eyes grew wide as she waited for the coach to continue.
“That didn’t come out the way I meant it,” Pat apologized. “It’s just that you’ve just put in a pretty demanding week physically and you should be resting. Believe it or not the first week is the easiest.”
“That’s what Marcie told me,” Sherry nodded.
“Well, she’s right.” Pat wondered why her assistant coach had told Sherry that. She hoped that Marcie wasn’t trying to discourage the player from continuing camp. “Anyway, you should be using the weekend to rest, not climb mountains.”
“I don’t think I’d consider this climbing a mountain,” Sherry grinned, glad that her coach didn’t seem all that mad with her. “But I get your point. As soon as I catch my breath, I’m heading back to the trailhead.”
“Good,” Pat smiled. “It won’t be as bad going down as it was coming up. Just take your time.”
“Take this,” Pat pulled a full bottle of water out of her pack.
“I can’t take your water,” Sherry protested.
“Take it,” Pat insisted. “I’ve got more. Besides I won’t need as much as you. I’m used to hiking these hills.”
“Do you do it often?” Sherry asked as she took the water from her coach.
“As often as I can,” Pat bent over, pulling the knee brace back into place. She fastened the velco straps securing the brace to her leg. “Being out here helps me relax. It also helps me put life back into perspective; nothing seems to be quite the crisis when I’m out here. Does wonders for my stress,” she grinned as she stood.
“I bet,” Sherry said, saddening as she watched the other woman prepare to leave.
“Well, I’ve got a few more miles to go before I call it a day,” Pat pulled the back onto her back, adjusting the weight until it was comfortable. “Promise me you’ll head straight home,” she gazed sternly at Sherry.
“I promise. Straight home to a hot shower and bed,” Sherry crossed her heart. She was more than sure of the truth of her words, she just hoped she could make it back to the trailhead without passing out from exhaustion.
“Good,” Pat smiled. “I expect to see you ready to play Monday.”
“I’ll be ready, Coach,” Sherry assured her.
Pat walked to the creek, making her way back across the shallow stretch of water. “Gallagher,” she stopped when she reached the opposite side and turned back.
“Next time take a short hike, one mile at most. Give your body time to adjust then you’ll be fine.”
“Right. Short hikes. Got it.”
“Bye,” Pat said as she made her way back to the trail.
“Bye,” Sherry whispered, her hands wrapped around the bottle of water.
Continued in Chapter Four
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