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“No, no, no,” Pat stopped play. “That is not how the play is designed to go.” She took a few steps to place her at the top of the key. “We have less than a week before our first exhibition game and you guys look like you’ve never seen a basketball before. Dawn,” she shouted at the player standing less than a foot from her, a bored look on her face. “You are supposed to fake a move up the key. That’s a little hard to do if you never move. This team is designed to run, so MOVE YOUR FEET.” Pat started to walk backwards to her viewing position near the sideline. “Sherry, pass the ball don’t lob it. Make it so only one person can catch it and that’s who you’re passing to. Let’s run it again.”
Sherry let the ball drop from under her arm where she’d been holding it. She dribbled as she back pedaled to the circle at half court where a large painting of a snarling mountain lion commanded that area of the court. She continued to dribble in place as the others set up for the play they were practicing.
Only five players were on the court as Pat was trying to get the rookies familiar with the Cougar plays. With the exhibition games rapidly approaching, she had been working the team hard during practice. The upside to that was she was able to watch Sherry’s skills develop as she became more comfortable on the court. The downside was that Sherry had been so tired after the exhausting practices she had passed on joining Pat for any more hikes.
When the other players were set, Sherry bounced the ball between her legs then trotted up the court, angling to the right side line. When she stepped even with the free throw line, she took a half step in Dawn’s direction and fired a bullet that smacked loudly against the post player’s palms.
“That hurt,” Marcie winced, as Dawn grimaced, hiding a smile behind a quickly placed fist over her mouth.
Pat held in her own smirk.
Dawn turned for the basket and took a step into the key before bounce passing the ball to Latesha running into position at the bottom of the key for a lay up. When the ball dropped through the net, Dawn turned triumphantly towards her coach.
Pat smiled but not because the basket had been made. ‘Now’s as good as time as any to burst her bubble,’ she thought. “Starters, on the floor,” she called to the players sitting along the sidelines watching the action. “The rest of you stay where you are, give Dawn the ball.”
Latesha, having caught the ball after her basket, tossed a lazy pass back to Dawn that dropped a few feet in front of the waiting player.
Pat smiled again. ‘Oh goodie, this is really turning out to be a fun group,’ she thought humorlessly. “Take the defense,” she told the five new players. When they were in position, she turned to Dawn. “I want you to make the EXACT same pass to Latesha that you made before. Think you can do that?”
“Sure coach,” Dawn smirked.
“Okay, do it.”
Dawn went to bounce pass the ball but instead of a clear passing lane to her teammate all she saw was a wall of waving arms and a web of legs.
“Well?” Pat asked. “Make the pass.”
“There’s no way I can get the ball through them,” Dawn complained.
“That’s right,” Pat growled. “That’s the whole point of you faking a move to the basket and drawing the defense to you. Like this,” Pat slapped the ball out of Dawn’s hands, turned her back to the basket for a second then spun around, stepped into the key causing the defensive players to sag in on her. As soon as she had the defense on the move, she made a quick step to the right for a clear passing lane to Latesha and snapped the ball at the rookie forward.
The ball slapped hard against Latesha’s hands and fell harmlessly out of bounds.
Shocked at the rookie’s failure to control the pass, Pat stared at her, trying to ignore the screaming jabs of pain coming from her knee. ‘I have to learn to quit doing that,’ she frowned, knowing she’d have to spend a couple of hours after practice in the whirlpool.
“Okay, listen up. I don’t know where some of you learned how to pass but if you can’t do it right, you won’t be playing for this team. And you better be able to handle them when they come because I won’t accept anything less. Marcie,” she called her assistant coach over. “Take the rookies to the other end of the court. I want them to know how make a pass and how to catch them by the end of the day.”
“Yes, coach,” Marcie nodded. “Alright, let’s go,” she said trotting down the court not bothering to see who if anyone was following. She figured the rookies should know who they were.
“Now,” Pat turned to face her senior players. “Let’s run through these plays like we know how. Kinsey, take the point.”
For the rest of the afternoon session, Pat split her attention between the players at her end of the court and the rookies at the other. By the end of the day, she had seen a vast improvement in passing skills from all but Dawn.
Pat blew her whistle, to get everyone’s attention. “Hit the showers,” she told the players. “I want to see all of you in the weight room at eight tomorrow.”
To a chorus of groans, Pat walked to the sideline where she’d placed her notepad earlier. Flipping through the pages she had for each player, she jotted down notes and observations from that day’s practice. Looking up when Dawn walked by her on the way to the locker room, she stopped the player. “Dawn, can I see you a moment?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Dawn shrugged her shoulders. The look she received from her coach told her not to push the attitude any further.
Pat waited until the floor cleared of players. “Look,” she started. “I don’t have time to waste with you. This isn’t college where you have a scholarship and a free ride. I’m not going to coddle or pamper or beg to get you to do what you’re supposed to do.” That was one advantage of coaching a pro team, the players were paid to play and it was expected of them to do just that. “Either you start to put out the effort and become a part of this team or I talk to Mac about cutting you loose so I can get another player in here before the season starts. And if she won’t do that, you better get yourself a nice comfy pillow ‘cause your butt will never get off the bench all season. Do I make myself clear?” Without waiting for an answer she turned around, picked up her bag and strode off the court, hoping her limp wasn’t too noticeable to the player staring slack jawed after her.
Dawn glared at Pat’s back until she entered the corridor and vanished from sight. She didn’t like being talked to like that by a has-been but she needed to stay with the Cougars the full season to get what she wanted. She’d do what she had to do to keep her position on the roster but no more.
“Hi, gorgeous,” Mandy whispered, walking up beside the irate player.
Dawn twisted around to look at the woman who could make her time in Missoula bearable. “You done for the day?”
“I can be. Got something on your mind?” Mandy ran a finger up Dawn’s arm, scraping her fingernail along its length.
“Let me grab my bag and we’ll go,” Dawn stormed for the locker room, Mandy trotting behind trying to catch the long-legged player.
“There goes trouble,” Marcie muttered, under her breath.
“Yeah,” Kelley agreed after seeing the exchange between the player and the owner’s niece. “Let’s hope they don’t drag anyone else into it.”
Pat was running a full court scrimmage between mixed teams of rookies and returning players. She had only two days left before the team would travel to its first exhibition game to see which combinations of players worked well and which didn’t. That was an aspect of the game she took more seriously than most coaches. As a player she knew that if you were comfortable with the players you shared the court with, you usually played better. Too often the opposing team was able to run off a couple of quick baskets if a new combination of players couldn’t get into rhythm immediately. Pat didn’t like substituting players willy-nilly, she wanted the five on the court to be comfortable with each other and jell immediately
“Sherry,” Pat was yelling as the rookie dribbled down the length of the court. “Pete’s got the angle, give her the ball.”
Sherry knew the other guard had been leading her down the court on the opposite sideline. Out of the corner of her eye, she had caught Pete beginning her cut towards the basket just as the coach yelled at her. She snapped a pass to the other guard, then cut across the floor to take the position Pete was vacating.
Pete charged for the key, pulling up sharply when she reached it. Spinning around she flipped the ball out to Val unguarded in the corner just beyond the three point line.
Without taking a step, Val popped in the air as soon as the ball was in her hands shooting for the basket.
All the players converged under the basket, jockeying for position to gather in the rebound should the ball bounce off the rim.
Sherry stayed at the back of the pack, prepared to set up the play again if the ball bounced her direction. The ball hit the rim, ricocheting off the backboard into a high arc towards the top of the key. Sherry was in the best position for gathering in the rebound but as she started her leap upward Dawn crashed into her. Before she could recover, the ball had been napped by Pete who took a couple of quick steps away from the others, squared up with the basket and popped in a fifteen foot jump shot.
Pat’s whistle blew stopping the action.
Sherry, rubbing her shoulder, walked for the side of the court where her water bottle sat on an empty seat in the first row of bleachers.
“You okay,” Marcie trotted up beside her. Dawn was quite a bit bigger than the guard and quite capable of doing damage if she wanted.
“Yeah,” Sherry continued to knead the knot in the muscle that had formed where Dawn’s elbow had been driven into it. “Just need a drink then I’ll be ready to go.”
“Okay, hurry back in,” Marcie said as she signaled the coach that the player was alright.
“Dawn,” Pat turned her attention back to the other players as soon as she saw Marcie’s signal. “You and Sherry are on the same team. Do you think its smart fighting over a rebound like that?” she asked even though she knew Dawn had purposely rammed Sherry.
“I was just going for the ball, coach,” the post player explained. After her talk with Pat a few days before she had been doing everything asked of her in practice. And doing it well, impressing both the skeptical coaching staff and the other players.
“It’s important that you always know where your teammates are,” Pat addressed the entire team. “This time it didn’t hurt us; Pete picked up the ball and scored. But it could just as easily been Wendy or Jade,” she named the two players on the other team of five who had been nearest the loose ball. “And they could have taken it the other way. Sherry,” she nodded when the guard rejoined the group. She noticed she was no longer rubbing her shoulder and wondered if it was because it wasn’t bothering her anymore or she was trying to hide an injury from her coach. “You get the trainers to take a look at that shoulder after practice,” she waited until the player nodded her agreement. “Okay, let’s run that play again. Only this time, Sherry, I want to see more speed when you’re bringing the ball up court. Remember, the Cougars are one of the fastest teams in the league and we have to prove that every single time we have the ball. The faster we bring it up court, the less time our opponents have to set up their defense. Okay?”
“Gotcha, coach,” Sherry nodded, her comment echoed by many of the other players.
“Okay, let’s go again. This time, make sure you know who you’re fighting over the ball with.”
As the players trotted into position, Marcie moved to stand beside Pat. “You know Dawn plowed into her on purpose.”
“Aren’t you going to say anything to her?”
“Yes, but not now. Besides, Sherry’s going to have to learn to take hard knocks and keep going. She’ll get a lot worse in the games.”
“We can’t afford to have her injured.”
“I know. Faster, Sherry, faster,” Pat shouted as the players move across the center court line. “That’s it. Have Dawn come to my office after practice,” Pat told Marcie, her eyes never leaving the action on the floor. “Better. Much better,” she called out to the players. “Good shot, Val,” she praised the forward who had made the three-point shot this time. “Okay, let’s switch up. Dawn, Pete out. Ashley, Kinsey in.”
Mandy pushed open the door to the office without knocking.
Pat looked up from the papers she was reading. “I’ve told you before, Mandy, not to do that,” she told her administrative assistant, not bothering to mask her displeasure.
“Dawn is here. She said Marcie told her you wanted to talk to her. Is there a problem?”
“Did I miss the memo about you joining my coaching staff?” Pat asked, sarcastically.
“Mac will want to know if there’s a problem with one of her players,” Mandy said, resting her hip on the edge of Pat’s desk, her skirt hiked up showing off most of her thigh. “Is there a problem?” she asked again, her fingertips trailing suggestively down bare skin.
“Not with any of the players,” Pat pursed her lips together, disgusted by the woman’s obvious display. “Did you check on the reservations for Denver?”
“Yes. Everything is confirmed. Perhaps this time you’ll let me take you to dinner when we’re there,” Mandy purred, shifting her leg so that Pat, if so inclined, could see she wasn’t wearing any panties.
“Get off my desk,” Pat glared at the woman. “And get out of my office.”
Mandy stood, but slowly. “You’re making a mistake, Pat,” she sighed, adjusting her skirt back into place.
“Will you ever give up?” Pat slumped against her chair back. “How many ways do you have to be told to get lost before you get it?”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mandy grinned smugly.
“It’ll be a mystery I take to my grave,” Pat shook her head in disgust. “Get out and tell Dawn to come in.”
“If that’s what you want,” Mandy sashayed for the door.
“And make sure you put those confirmations in my box before you leave.”
With a wave of her manicured hand, Mandy walked out of the office. A few moments later, Dawn walked in.
“You wanted to see me?” Dawn asked.
“Yeah,” Pat was still thinking of Mandy’s behavior and what she should do about it. “Have a seat.” While she waited for Dawn to sit, she reached down to rub her aching knee.
“Well?” Dawn shrugged when the coach remained silent for several minutes.
“Um, yeah,” Pat straightened in her chair. Maybe a turn at the whirlpool would help her think, she thought. “Listen, I wanted to say how much I’ve appreciated the change in your attitude. You’ve really been working hard and showing some good moves out there. You’ve got the makings of a good player, Dawn,” she smiled.
“But?” Dawn asked, detected a trace of disapproval in the coach’s voice.
“But,” Pat’s smile faded and her tone hardened. “If you ever pull another stunt like you did today, I’ll personally throw your butt out of this arena. And with or without Mac’s approval.”
“Wait a minute,” Dawn protested, standing to stare down at the coach. “That was a clean play. It’s not my fault Sherry’s too slow to get out of the way.”
Pat struggled to keep her anger from showing in her voice when she responded to the player’s claims. In her mind’s eye, she again saw Sherry absorbed the blow of the larger woman and almost crash to the floor because of it. “It was a dirty shot, Dawn. You know and I know it. Don’t make the mistake of doing it again. It’s hard enough getting through the season with the injuries our opponents will cause. I don’t need to loose any players because you can’t control your jealously.”
“Jealously? You think I’m jealous of that wanna be?”
“Sit down, Dawn,” Pat instructed, tired of looking up at the player. “I think you felt you were the star when you played for Karen’s team and you just can’t get over the fact that I offered Sherry a spot at camp the same time I offered one to you. I’ve looked into your background,” she relaxed when Dawn settled back into the chair. “You played at different high schools in different states. You played at different colleges in different leagues. Fact is I can’t find anything that suggests you knew each other or were even aware of each other’s existence until you showed up to play for Karen. And I’ve talked to her about it; she said you had no problems with Sherry then either. So all this started the night I offered you both a spot in camp. So yeah, I think you’re jealous. I think you feel Sherry has somehow taken some of the spotlight away from you and you can’t stand it.”
“You’re wrong,” Dawn muttered, not ready to admit the coach was right.
“Am I?” Pat looked at her player. When Dawn dropped her eyes rather than meet her own, she knew she must have hit close to the truth. “If I am, prove it. Lay off Sherry.” ‘Because if you don’t,’ she thought to herself, ‘I’ll personally use your head the next time I want to try a slam dunk.’
“Is that it?” Dawn asked, still looking at the floor.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Pat sighed.
Dawn literally jumped out of the chair and rushed to the door, yanking it open.
Pat watched as Dawn stopped at the desk in the outer office. From where she sat, she couldn’t see Mandy but she knew that had to be who Dawn was talking to. She could hear desk drawers being shut and the lamp on the desk went dark. Then Mandy walked from behind her desk to join Dawn.
“Night, Pat,” the assistant called out as she and Dawn walked arm in arm out of the office area.
“Trouble with a capital T,” Pat muttered, turning off her desk lamp.
Sherry finished her private free throw practice and headed for the locker room. The shoulder was tight and she was sure she’d find a noticeable bruise when she pulled her practice jersey off. Luckily, Dawn had slammed into her left arm leaving her shooting arm free of damage. She entered the locker room, unsurprised to find it empty of players.
“Coach said to take a look at you.” A dark skinned woman sat in one of the chairs facing the dry marker board. “Said to wait until you were done out there,” she told the player.
“I think its okay,” Sherry lied, the shoulder aching as she rotating it to prove her statement.
“Well, I get paid to make those decisions so let me do my job,” the woman smiled.
“Alright,” Sherry smiled back. “I’m Sherry,” she said, embarrassed that she had spoken to the woman on several occasions but didn’t know her name.
“Elizabeth,” the trainer replied. “I’ve taped your ankles a time or two,” she reminded the player, a slight reprimand in her tone.
“I know,” Sherry’s cheeks began to color. “I’m sorry, that really was rude of me. I just never thought to ask your name.”
“Most don’t,” Elizabeth shrugged. “Let’s go into the treatment area, the lights better.”
Chagrined over her bad manners, Sherry silently followed the woman to the back of the locker room. Two doors shared the wall at that end of the room, one led to the showers, the other to the room where the training staff had their supplies and equipment.
“Over on that table should work,” Elizabeth pointed to a table mostly used to tape players ankles before practices. “Take off your shirt.”
Pat was soaking her knee in a whirlpool in the dark having turned off the lights in that corner of the large room that served the needs of the Cougar medical staff. She heard Elizabeth come in and guessed Sherry must be the player she was talking to. When the trainer instructed Sherry to remove her shirt, Pat felt her stomach flop and her heart missed a beat or two. She knew with only a slight turn of her head she’d be able to see the player but she forced her eyes to stay where they were.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen most of the players in various stages of undress; after all she commonly was in the locker room when the players were changing clothes. But for some reason, she had never felt comfortable when it was Sherry and she would avert her eyes or move away whenever the player was in the process of dressing.
“Let’s take a look,” Elizabeth frowned at the large bruise revealed when Sherry’s shirt had been removed. “What she hit you with, a two by four?”
“Her elbow,” Sherry answered.
Pat felt anger building in her stomach and spreading throughout her body. The difference in height between the post player and the guard would make it easy for Dawn to drive her elbow into Sherry without it looking too obvious. Though she had had a clear view of the blow, she had missed that the post player led with her elbow.
“Can you lift your arm?”
Sherry started to raise her arm above her hand but stopped when the shoulder protested. “It’s tightened up a little,” she grimaced.
“More than a little,” Elizabeth grinned as the player tried not to let the pain show on her face. “It doesn’t feel like any more than a bad bruise,” she said as her fingers probed the tender tissue. “If you’ve got the time, I’d suggest you spend an hour in the hot tub.
“Is not that bad,” Sherry was afraid the trainer would report the shoulder was injured enough to keep her from playing. “You can’t tell Coach it’s that bad.”
“Too late,” Elizabeth smiled, apologetically. “She’s over there,” she gestured with her thumb to the dark corner of the room.
“Damn,” Sherry muttered looking into the shadows. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed Pat sitting on the edge of the whirlpool before, her legs soaking in the bubbling waters.
“Give it an hour in the hot tub then go home, take some aspirin and get some rest. Take a hot shower in the morning and you should be fine.”
“I, ah,” Sherry hesitated. “I don’t have a bathing suit,” she explained shyly, looking at the large tub across the room.
“We’re all ladies in here,” Elizabeth laughed. “You don’t need a suit. If you’re shy, wear your shorts. ‘Course you’ll have to explain the chlorine stains to Mac when she gets the bill for taking them out.”
Sherry wasn’t exactly shy. And normally, she wouldn’t have given a second thought to stripping out of her clothes to soak in a hot tub. But for some reason the thought of Pat seeing her like that made her… ‘What does it make me?’ she asked herself. ‘Warm and fuzzy all over,’ came the unexpected answer. ‘Oh, yeah,’ she mentally slapped herself, ‘the shorts are definitely staying on. Mac can take the cost of cleaning out of my paycheck. And the shirt goes back on,’ she thought, grabbing the garment off the table and slipping it over her head.
“I want to take a look at you before practice tomorrow,” Elizabeth chuckled as Sherry redressed. Sherry wasn’t the first woman to react to the coach’s magnetism, she, herself, had even fallen victim to it when she first started working for the Cougars. “And that means before you go out for your hundred free throws. You don’t pick up a ball tomorrow until you see me. Understand?”
“You’ll find towels in the cupboard by the tub. Be sure you turn the jets off when you get out.”
“Well, go on then,” Elizabeth encouraged the reluctant player. “The sooner you get over there and get in, the sooner you can go home.”
“Okay,” Sherry dropped off the table. “Thank you, Elizabeth.”
“Like I said, that’s what I get paid to do,” the trainer smiled. “And my friends call me Lizzie.”
“Thank you, Lizzie,” Sherry smiled back.
“Go on,” Lizzie insisted. “That thing costs a ton of money to run and Mac will eat me alive if she finds out it was running with nobody in it. You need anything, Coach,” she called across the room.
“Then I’ll head home.”
“Have a good night, Lizzie. Thanks.”
“Make sure she keeps that shoulder underwater a good hour.”
Sherry eased herself down into the hot tub, settling on the lowest seat to keep her shoulder under the hot water.
“It was a cheap shot,” Pat nodded at the shoulder. “Mind telling me what you two have against each other?”
“Wish I knew,” Sherry said, surprised that the shoulder was already responding to the heat of the water. “We never had a problem until she showed up in camp.”
“That’s what I thought,” Pat stood up. “Mind if I join you. Sitting on the rim of this thing is about as uncomfortable as trying to sit on the edge of a… Well, I’m not sure what,” she smiled, self-consciously. “But it don’t feel good, that’s for sure. So?” she gestured towards the hot tub.
“Plenty of room,” Sherry said, nervously.
“Thanks.” Pat stepped out of the whirlpool then padded the few steps to the hot, leaving wet footprints to mark her path. “Ahh, much better,” she groaned as she lowered herself into the tub, not bothering to remove the t-shirt and shorts she wore. She’d thought about it but somehow it felt wrong to do so she left her clothes on.
“Why don’t you just use it to begin with?” Sherry asked, wondering why the coach would choose to sit at the whirlpool if it was so uncomfortable.
“Like Lizzie said, it costs a lot to run,” Pat shrugged. “And the whirlpool is better for a knee or arm. Not much use for a shoulder though. So how is it, really?” she smiled to let the player know she wasn’t digging for information to keep her from playing.
“Sore but this is making it feel better.”
“Good,” Pat leaned back against the side of the tub. She smiled again at the player, “kinda missed you on the trail this past weekend.”
“I, uh,” Sherry felt a blush rising up her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I just didn’t feel like moving too far from my couch. You run a nasty practice session, Coach,” she smirked, trying to cover her unease.
“No need to be sorry,” Pat grinned. “And I’m happy you’re smart enough to know when not to push things.”
“I’ll be ready next time,” Sherry said a little quicker than she had intended but she didn’t want the coach to think she was no longer interested in their private hikes.
“Relax,” Pat smiled. “It’ll be a while before we have time. Denver this weekend and Seattle next will keep us too busy for much of anything.”
“I’m looking forward to the games.”
Pat thought for a moment before responding. “Look, Sherry, I hope you don’t get too disappointed if you don’t play. I really need to use these games to test Kinsey’s knees. You probably won’t see much play time.”
Sherry was disappointed. She knew the only reason she was still on the team was in case the aging guard was unable to make it to the start of the regular season. Pat had been more than honest with her about that. But she had been working hard in practice and she had hoped that might get her some playing time in the two exhibition games. “I understand,” she tried to sound upbeat but by the look on the coach’s face she knew she had failed.
“I’m sorry, Sherry,” Pat knew what the player was feeling. She felt the same way every time the Cougars took the floor and she had to face the fact that she would only be on the sidelines. She reached down rubbing the injured knee that kept her from playing the game she so loved. “I really wish things were different.”
“Its okay, Coach,” Sherry pursed her lips together in a force smile. “Kinsey deserves the shot,” and she meant it. She knew a lot of the Cougar success in prior seasons was due to the play of the guard. It was only fair she was given every opportunity to play one last season if her body would allow it.
Pat stood, mesmerizing Sherry with the water flowing in rivulets down her body. “Don’t give up just yet,” she murmured, stepping out of the hot tub. Grabbing a towel, she began to wipe her body dry, “I’ll be in my office. Let me know when you’re finished so I can lock up.”
Sherry said nothing. She couldn’t, the sight of the coach’s body outlined in her wet clothing all but sucked the air out of her lungs. She simply sat in hot water up to her neck watching the gorgeous woman walk away.
“What the hell is this?” Pat threw the paper onto her assistant’s desk. “Do you realize the plane reservations you made leave us with less than two hours to get from the airport to the arena and tip-off?” She was more upset with herself than her assistant. She should have expected Mandy to do something like this but she hadn’t taken the time to check the reservations when the confirmations were put in her inbox.
Regardless of which one of them bore the most responsibility, Mandy was going to absorb the coach’s wrath. After all, the assistant’s job was to handle the scheduling of the team’s travel.
“I did the best I could, Pat,” Mandy looked calmly at the paper, trying to keep the smile off her face that was trying to emerge. “If you didn’t like the reservations, you should have let me know when I made them. It’s too late to change now.”
“Do you have any idea what this means for us now, Mandy?” Confronted with her assistant’s apparent blithe demeanor, Pat could feel her rage growing. “We won’t have time for pre-game warm-ups. And the players will have to dress on the bus since there isn’t going to be time to wait until we get to the arena. Do you even care how this screw-up affects the team?” she almost yelled at the smug look on her assistant’s face, but she struggled to keep her voice low so it wouldn’t be overheard in the locker room next door where the players were preparing for the last practice before they left town.
“I’m sorry, Pat,” Mandy smiled but her eyes held a challenge for the coach. “If you don’t like the way I schedule, maybe you should take more time telling me exactly what you need. Perhaps,” the assistant leered at the irate coach, “tonight, my place, dinner for just the two of us. It’s going to be a full moon,” she purred.
Pat leaned over, placing her hands palm down on Mandy’s desk. She glared into the woman’s eyes, a sneer growing on her lips. “It’s never, EVER going to happen, Mandy,” she growled. “So get your head out of my ass and do the job Mac pays you to do.”
“Mac doesn’t seem to have any problem with my job,” Mandy smiled.
“She will when she hears about this,” Pat eased herself off the desk, her sneer replaced by a grin. “One thing you haven’t figured out yet is Mac expects to win and she doesn’t take kindly to anything OR anyone getting in the way of that.”
“Whatever,” Mandy shrugged, unconcerned about her aunt’s reaction to the situation since she doubted Pat would mention it to the team owner. The coach hadn’t run to Mac before so there was no reason to believe she would now.
Mac stormed into the locker room.
Marcie, running through some plays on the marker board with the point guards, judged her head coach’s mood immediately. “Okay, get out on the floor,” she told the players, “we’ll continue this out there.”
The players looked at Pat and, immediately deciding being out of the room was best for them, jumped to their feet and ran out of the room.
Sherry hung back. She could tell that Pat was upset about something and wondered if there was anything she could do to help. She took a half step towards Pat but stopped when the coach looked at her.
Pat saw the look of concern on the player’s face but knew this wasn’t the time for Sherry to approach her. With a slight shake of her head, she forced a smile on her face to assure the player.
Sherry took the signal for what it was and turned to trot out of the room.
Marcie hadn’t missed the exchange between coach and player but, not being real sure what it meant, let it pass without comment. “Problems?” she asked Pat.
“Yeah, Mandy booked us on the four o’clock flight.”
“I thought the game started at eight.”
“Damn, Pat,” Marcie’s voice started to rise. “That doesn’t give us time…”
“To do much more than walk in the arena and start the game. I know,” Pat grunted.
“What are you going to do about it?” Marcie just didn’t understand why the coach hadn’t talk to the team owner about her niece. Anyone else would have and most long before now.
“Not much I can do about it. We fly tomorrow, there isn’t time to change flights,” Pat stated the obvious. Missoula had a limited number of flights in and out of town each day and most left full so it was next to impossible to change plans this close to departure. “Is everyone out on the floor?”
“Okay,” Pat started for the door to the corridor. “Let’s break the news to them.”
“Any word on Kinsey?” Marcie asked as she followed the coach.
“Nothing new. Her doc wants her to quit, she wants to play.”
“Guess we should know more after these next two games.”
“Yeah,” Pat’s lips twitched into a smile. She hoped Kinsey could play, she really did. But the prospect of a certain rookie guard playing in her stead was suddenly quite appealing.
Mac strolled into Pat’s office the day of the Cougar’s first exhibition game.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Mac addressed the coach as she sat in one of the two chairs in front of Pat’s desk. “But we do have a game this evening do we not?”
“Yes,” Pat answered, leaning back in her chair. Letting out a long breath, she waited for the inevitable questions.
“Might I ask why you’re sitting here?” Mac tensed, sensing a problem.
“Got some things to go over before the players start to arrive,” Pat indicated her paper strewn desk.
“I suppose there’s a reason why the team isn’t here yet?” Mac started to relax; it was obvious her coach wasn’t going to make this easy for her. She was willing to play along for awhile but, a very short while.
Pat looked at the clock on the office wall showing the time to be a quarter past ten. If the team had had reservations on the noon flight, like she’d expected, they would preparing to board the bus to the airport now.
“Bus won’t be here to pick up the team until two thirty. No point for them to sit around until then.”
“Two thirty?” Mac asked, the muscles in her neck beginning to twitch.
“The game starts at eight. Why the hell is the bus picking you up at two thirty?”
“Because,” Pat stiffened. Oh how she wanted to tell Mac just how upset she was with being saddled with the owner’s niece who’d had only one thing on her mind since she’d first walked into the Cougar offices. And that one thing was something Pat was sick and tired of having to guard against. But she knew this wasn’t the time. “Mandy booked us on the four o’clock flight,” she calmly explained.
“She what? Why? But that doesn’t make sense,” Mac sputtered as she calculated the timetable in her head. “Hell, Pat, that barely leaves you any warm up time before the game.”
“That’s right,” Pat frowned at the team owner. “Nor does it leave time for the team dressing, getting taped, going over pre-game adjustments before the game. We’ll have to do all that on the plane. It’s a nasty situation anyway you look at it.”
“Why would Mandy do this? She knows how important it is for the team to arrive well before a game.”
“I suggest you ask her.”
“You told her what you wanted, right?”
Pat glared at the owner. Reaching for her desk file drawer, she pulled it open and removed a piece of paper from one of hanging folders. She flipped the paper across her desk, “those are my instructions to her.”
Mac picked the paper up and read it. “Damn, what’s the matter with her?” she muttered.
Pat thought again about telling the owner the truth behind her niece’s behavior but thought better of it. That was something Mac could discover on her own, there was no reason for her to get any more involved in it than Mandy had already made her.
The women heard someone enter the outer office. Moments later, Pat’s assistant flounced through the doorway into the coach’s office.
‘Great timing, Mandy,’ Pat thought.
“Pat,” Mandy said, her voice sugary sweet. “You didn’t make coffee this morning, you naughty girl. You know how I can’t start my day without a nice cup of coffee.”
Pat didn’t respond. Instead she looked at Mac, clearly expecting the woman to handle the situation.
“Hello, Mandy,” Mac swiveled the chair around to face her niece.
“Mac?” Mandy asked, surprised by the sudden appearance of her aunt. “Pat, you should have warned me the big, bad boss was here,” she laughed uneasily, trying to make light of her aunt unexpectedly overhearing her inappropriate flirting with the coach.
Pat couldn’t help the smirk on her face as Mandy glared at her.
“Mandy,” Mac continued, seemingly oblivious to the exchange between the two women. “I understand there was a mix-up in the plane reservations.”
“Oh, yes,” Mandy quickly answered, happy her aunt hadn’t pursued her comments to the coach. “I misunderstood Pat’s needs,” she purred the word. “I’m sorry the flight is so late but by the time Pat told me about it, it was just too late to change things.”
“I see,” Mac said, nonchalantly. “Well I’m sure you have things to do, Pat,” Mac stood up. “So why don’t we continue this conversation in my office, Mandy.” Mac’s office was located high above the arena floor where she had a bird’s eye view of home games.
“I don’t know what else we could possibly have to talk about, Auntie,” Mandy looked shocked. “I told you, Pat gave me the wrong information.”
“Yes, I heard you. Now let’s go to my office and leave the coach to her job of getting my Cougars ready for their first win.” Mac turned to Pat. “Good luck, coach. I wish I could be there tonight but it looks like I’ve got some business to attend to here.”
“But,” Mandy protested, “I booked you a ticket. You go to all the games.”
“I try to,” Mac said, turning to leave the office. “Come on, Mandy.”
“Auntie,” Mandy hurried after her aunt. “I have things to do myself before the bus comes.”
“Oh, I think you’ll have plenty of time to take care of them since you won’t be going either.”
“I won’t be going,” Mandy’s voice started to rise into a high pitched whine. “But Auntie.”
Pat snickered as she watched Mandy change from a confident sexual adversary into a spoiled little girl as she followed her aunt out of the office, still arguing her case.
Sherry, as usual, was the first player to arrive at the arena. After changing into her warm ups and game shoes, she trotted out to the court for her free throw practice. She was surprised to see the coach sitting a few rows up in the stands near the mouth of the corridor, her eyes closed and her head slowly weaving from side to side. As she stood watching, Pat seemed to sense her presence and opened her eyes.
“Hi,” Sherry said, smiling uncomfortable, not sure what she might have interrupted.
“Hi, yourself,” Pat smiled back. “Free throws?”
“Um, yeah,” Sherry walked a few steps closer. “Since we won’t have time for any practice when we get there, I thought I’d do it here.”
“Wish a few more of the players took free throws as serious as you,” Pat grumbled. At least half the players on the roster averaged less than seventy percent completion from the charity line and as far as Pat was concerned that was about twenty points too low. But as much as she tried to convince them they needed more practice, they would only do what was demanded by their coach and no more.
“Um,” Sherry mumbled, not sure what to say to the coach’s comment.
“Well don’t let me keep you,” Pat told the player.
“Mind if I ask what you were doing?” Sherry asked, hesitantly.
Pat smiled, self-consciously. “You’ll think it’s silly,” she shrugged.
“No I won’t,” Sherry said in a soft voice.
“I miss playing,” Pat started to explain, her tone low revealing her pain at the loss of something she truly loved. “But I miss it the most on game days. I used to get so jazzed before a game,” as she spoke, a far away look entered Pat’s eyes as she relived a past she would never experience again. “I’d come to the arena hours before anyone else and sit in the stands and just imagine what the game would be like. I’d think about the players I’d be facing and visualize how they might respond in certain situations and I’d come up with ways I could counter them. I’d play the whole game in my head before…” her voice trailed off. “Stupid, huh?”
“No,” Sherry shook her head. “Is that what you were doing? Visualizing it as if you would be playing tonight?”
Pat bit her bottom lip. “I really miss playing,” she said, her voice almost cracking. She had never talked to anyone about this and she wasn’t sure why it felt so good telling Sherry her secret. “I guess it’s my way of staying in the game. I’m not ready to let it go.”
The look on Pat’s face was so heartrending that it was almost too painful for Sherry to watch. She wanted to rush to Pat’s side and wrap her arms around her but she knew she couldn’t. Shouldn’t. “Are you okay?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Yeah,” Pat pursed her lips together in a sad smile. “Like I said, game day is the worse.”
“Can I do anything?” Sherry asked softly.
“Go on, do your practice shots,” Pat stood. “I better go make sure everyone else is showing up. First game usually means at least someone is late for the bus and today we don’t have any time to spare.” She slowly walked down the few steps to the arena floor as Sherry stepped to the middle of the court. “Ah, Sherry,” she called to the player.
“You’re welcome,” Sherry said but when she turned around to look, the coach had already disappeared into the corridor.
Mandy stood in front of the wall of glass in Mac’s office waiting for her aunt to finish a phone conversation that had interrupted their own. She saw Pat come out of the corridor and walk into the stands where she took a seat several rows up from the arena floor. As she watched, the coach seemed to go into some kind of trance and Mandy wondered what she was doing but really didn’t care. She was about to turn away from the window when she saw Sherry emerge from the corridor.
‘Hmm,’ Mandy thought to her self, ‘I wonder what those two are talking about?’ There was no way for her to hear the women’s conversation and she was too far away to make out their facial expressions but they’re body language seem to indicate that whatever they were talking about it was more than just a casual discussion between coach and player. Mandy grinned, not a pleasant grin but rather an evil, I’ve got to find out more about this kind of grin. Maybe there was something going on between the two women she could use to her advantage. ‘Interesting, coach,’ she rolled the idea around in her head. ‘You and your favorite little rookie don’t have something going on, now do you?’
Mandy turned around when she heard her aunt say goodbye to her caller. If she could get this wrapped up in the next few minutes, she’d still be able to catch the bus to the airport. And after the game, she and Dawn could spend the night in the suite she had reserved at the team hotel in her own name. At the very least, she’d be able to let Dawn know what was going on, Mac having refused to allow her to make any calls on their walk to her office.
But Mac began to speak before Mandy had a chance.
“Sit down, Mandy,” Mac instructed her niece. She continued without waiting for the girl to comply. “Do you understand your position with the Cougar organization?”
Mandy looked confused, not at all expecting this line of questioning.
“Um, yes,” Mandy managed to answer.
“Then you understand that you are to handle certain affairs so that Pat can do what I pay her to do and that’s to coach. I don’t pay my coaches to make airline reservations, Mandy,” Mac tone was all business. As far as she was concerned she was talking to an employee and not to her niece. “I pay you to do that.”
“But auntie,” Mandy whined, failing to grasp the team owner’s attitude.
“Don’t but auntie me,” Mac tone hardened. “Do you realize that your incompetence could very well cost us the game tonight? They’ll be lucky to get to game before tip-off. Do you know what will happen if they don’t? We forfeit, that’s what. We start the season with a big fat one in the losing column,” her anger was rising the more she spoke. “I don’t accept numbers in the losing column, Mandy. Losing teams don’t sell tickets. Losing teams don’t become champions. Losing teams are not what the Cougars are. Dammit, Mandy, if we lose tonight because of you, you can kiss your cushy little job goodbye. Niece or no niece, if we lose, I’m going to boot your ass outa here so fast you won’t know what hit you. You got that?”
Mandy could only nod; she had never seen her aunt so mad. Maybe playing loose and free with the team’s travel arrangements hadn’t been such a good idea. But how else was she to get the very desirable coach to take her seriously?
“Pat gave you a list of games and her travel requirements,” Mac wasn’t asking a question. “Did you take care of them?”
“All of them?”
“I want to see what arrangements you made.”
Mandy smiled, she’d have to go down to her office to get the information. She’d be able to talk to Dawn then. “I’ll go down and print it off,” she bounced to her feet. Maybe she hadn’t paid for a nice suite with whirlpool tub out of her own pocket for nothing.
“Why what? I thought you said you wanted to see…”
“Mandy,” Mac looked at her niece, trying to figure out just what she was thinking. “I assume you have the information on file in your computer.”
“All our computers are networked. You can bring the file up here, you don’t have to go to your office.”
‘SHIT,’ Mandy screamed in her head. ‘I forgot all about that.’ Now she really had to get back to her office and fast. If Mac ever read her email files, she’d be dead. Dawn wasn’t the only player she’d had relationships with. And what about all the emails she’d sent to Pat suggesting things she’d like to do with her in bed. ‘SHIT, SHIT, SHIT,’ she winced.
“Is something wrong, Mandy?” Mac was a little concerned about the sudden lack of skin color her niece was experiencing.
“I’m fine,” Mandy stammered. “I just thought of something I need to do.” She moved around Mac’s desk to her computer. After a series of keystrokes, the file of travel reservations appeared on Mac’s screen.
Mac took a few minutes to compare Mandy’s file with Pat’s instructions while Mandy paced nervously about the office.
“This is not acceptable, Mandy. Almost none of these meet Pat’s requests.”
“Um, it’s the best I could do,” Mandy started to explain.
“No it isn’t,” Mac glared. “I want you to take this list,” she pushed the paper with the coach’s notes across her desk. “And go down to your office and reschedule every one of these to Pat’s specifications. Then send me a copy so I can look at it.”
“Okay,” Mandy glanced at her watch. ‘Still time to catch the bus,’ she thought. “I’ll take care of it just as soon as we get back from Denver.”
“No, you’ll take care of it now. I want the new itineraries on my desk before you leave today.”
“Mandy, I’m not kidding,” Mac was more than a little concerned her niece didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. “You are to take care of this today. I’m not going to lose games because you screwed up the travel plans. Now either you do this, and do it right, or I’ll hire someone who can.” ‘And my sister can pawn her worthless brat off on someone else in the family,’ she kept the thought to herself.
“Alright, I’m going,” Mandy glowered. “But I don’t think its fair I don’t get to go to Denver with the team.”
“They’ll be other games, Mandy,” Mac assured the disgruntled girl. “But this is more important right now.”
Mandy walked to the office door without another word. Once out of Mac’s sight, she quickened her steps. Maybe if she hurried, she could catch Dawn in the locker room. There was no way she’d be able to talk to the player if she’d already boarded the bus.
Dawn stared out the bus window, unaware of the scenery passing by on the other side. When Mandy hadn’t boarded the bus, she’d asked Marcie about the administrative assistant and had been told that she wouldn’t be making the trip.
“Why not?” Dawn asked, annoyed that it appeared the plans she and Mandy had made were not to be.
Marcie looked at the player, quizzically. It really shouldn’t concern any player if Mandy traveled with the team or not. But she was aware there was some kind of relationship between the team owner’s niece and this particular player, she wondered how much Dawn was willing to disclose. “Any particular reason you need to know that?” she asked.
“Forget it,” Dawn tossed her bag on a seat and slumped down beside it. “Just asking a question. You don’t need to make a federal case out of it.” She glanced to the front of the bus and saw Pat watching her. She quickly looked away. ‘Bet she’s got something to do with it,’ she told herself.
‘Damn, looks like it’s gonna be a long night in Denver,’ Dawn groaned inwardly. ‘And I was so looking forward to that room with the hot tub. You better have a darn good reason for this, Mandy.’
The Cougars watched anxiously as the bus approached a side entrance at the Denver Pioneer Memorial Arena less than a half hour before tip off. A very worried looking representative of the Pioneer organization was pacing on the sidewalk next to the building.
Pat, already standing at the top of the steps, waited impatiently for the driver to pull to a stop. “Sorry,” she apologized as soon as the doors swung open and she hurried down to the ground.
“I take it the flight was late,” the Pioneer official commented, stepping back out of the way of the rush of players scrambling off the bus.
“Flight was on time,” Pat watched the players exit the bus and gather near the building’s door. “Traffic was bad.”
“Usually is this time of night,” the official said. “Door’s open,” she told Pat and the players. “Locker room is second door on the right.”
One of the players pulled the outside door open and the team swarmed inside.
“Thanks,” Pat nodded to the official as she hurried after her players.
“Tip off is in eighteen minutes,” the official called after her.
“We’re ready,” Pat called back, hoping it was true.
Pat was glad she’d had the players wear their uniforms and warm-ups on the plane. With Lizzie and her staff able to get most of the players taped on the bus ride from the airport, the team was ready to play as soon as they clambered off the bus.
“Alright, drop your bags and let’s get out on the floor,” Marcie instructed as soon as the team entered the locker room. “Grab some balls and get as much practice in as you can.”
Pat didn’t even bother to enter the locker room, walking right past it to the end of the corridor and the court. As soon as she heard the pre-game commotion of the spectators and the pounding music being piped through the PA system, her palms started to sweat and her heart started to race. It didn’t take long for some in the crowd to recognize her and a wall of cheers began to swell before surging around the arena. She might be the coach of their opponent’s team but she was still a very much respected and loved player of the game. A smile formed on her face and she took the time to enjoy the moment.
Kelley stepped up beside Pat, “we’re ready, coach.”
Pat turned to see that the Cougars were huddled at the end of the tunnel, waiting for her signal to take the court. “Then let’s get out there,” she told her players.
The players let out a roar as they raced for the opposite end of the floor and the basket they would claim as their own for the game’s first half. A few snatched balls off the ball racks they ran past and the much shortened pre-game drills began.
Sherry began to run onto the court with the rest of the team but when she cleared the corridor her steps slowed until she came to a stop a few steps in front of her coach. She stared up the row upon row of occupied seats circling the court. “Whoa,” she gawked, having never seen so many people in one place before. Her college team had been well supported but had never had more than three thousand fans attend any one game. As her eyes scanned the wall of faces, she guessed there were probable at least three times that number in attendance.
“Scary, isn’t it?” Pat walked up to Sherry, nudging her forward.
“Down right frightening,” Sherry murmured, continuing to stare as she walked. “I’m not sure I can do this,” she hesitated, the noise inside the building was deafening. “There’s so many of them.”
Pat grinned. The look on her player’s face was one of amazement, fear, shock, and awe all rolled up into one. She remembered the first time she’d walked out to play in the NCAA tournament and had felt the same emotions and doubts Sherry was feeling now. “Don’t worry about them,” Pat told the nervous player, having to shout a little to be heard. “You won’t be playing against the people up in the seats. Just worry about what’s happening on the court. That’s all you care about.”
“But the noise,” Sherry turned to look at her coach.
“You focus on the game,” Pat said. “And only the game and you won’t even hear them. Come on,” she turned to walk to where Marcie and Kelley were rounding up the team.
Sherry rolled Pat’s advice over in her head as she trotted to join the team. At first she didn’t think it could be possible to block out the crowd but then after remembering that Pat had played in front of crowds this large for most of the college career and that the coach had played for the national title in front of crowds many times this size, she started to believe. ‘If you can do it, coach,’ she said to herself as she joined the huddle with her teammates, ‘then I guess it can be done.’
The PA system came alive with the voice of the game announcer starting the buildup to the player introductions. As is normal before most games, the home players were introduced to thunderous applause while the visitors received mostly boos and jeers intermixed with some supportive cheers.
Pat stood on the sideline waiting for the coaches to be introduced so she could shake the hand of the Pioneer coach. Then the game would be on. She heard her name and walked to meet the other coach in front of the scorer’s table.
“Glad you could make it,” the coach smirked as he reached out his hand. “I was beginning to think you were just going to hand me my first victory of the season.”
“Wishful thinking,” Pat smiled at her friend.
Roland Sweever had accepted the Pioneer head coach position the same year Pat had started her career with the Cougars. They had met and gotten acquainted at the numerous off season league functions all coaches were expected to attend and it hadn’t taken long for them to realize they shared a off beat sense of humor. Before long they had developed a friendship and the Pioneer coach was one of the few people in the game Pat felt comfortable seeking advice from.
“Thanks,” Pat firmly grasped the outstretched hand, squeezing it hard. “Good luck tonight, Rolle,” she said, using the man’s hated nickname.
“You should have stayed on the plane, Pat,” Sweever sneered good naturally, yanking his hand free. “But since you’re here, we’re going to wipe the floor with you.”
“Nah,” Pat grinned, “it doesn’t look that dirty.” Not waiting to hear his reply, she turned and returned to her team. Pat glanced up at the scoreboard hanging above mid-court, she didn’t have much time. “Listen up,” she yelled, clapping her hands to get her players attention. “They’re going to expect us to come out slow. We got here late, had no time for practice or warm-ups and they expect us to be sluggish. But we’re not going to give them that satisfaction,” she grinned wickedly. “We’re going to come out running. Kinsey, Pete, I want you pushing the ball up court. Terry, Val, Tonie, you have to muscle for position under the basket but you’ve got size on them, use it. I want to see everybody running and crisp passes. And rebounding, lots of it. We’ve got lots of talent on the bench, so if I think you’re tired or dogging it, I’m pulling you. Got it?” she looked each of her starting players in the eye. “And if you need a break, say so.”
The referee came over to warn Pat she needed players on the court.
“Okay, let’s get out there,” Pat told her starters who immediately ran to take their positions for the tip-off. Too energized to sit just yet, Pat walked down the sideline in front of the rest of the team to the end of the bench where she would watch the tip-off. She noticed all the reserve players except Dawn were standing as they waited for the game to begin, most bouncing in place to release some tension. Dawn was slumped on the bench, hardly paying attention to the activity on the court at all. Saying nothing, Pat walked past the sullen player then turned to watch the game.
Terry waited in the circle at mid-court while Val, Pete and Tonie jockeyed for position around the circle. Kinsey faded back to midway between the circle and the key in front of the Pioneer basket.
The ball was tossed high in the air.
Terry leaped the highest, tipping the ball back over her head to Kinsey.
Kinsey was already moving when the ball reached her. Without breaking stride, she knocked the ball to the floor beginning her dribble up court.
Pete broke for the right side of the court while Val, Tonie and Terry took up positions on the left.
Terry stopped at the top of the key with her back to the basket, legs planted and arms spread wide as she screened her defender from the developing play.
Tonie went deep into the key drawing two defenders with her then cut to the right side of the court, crossing paths with Val who was moving across the key with another defender in tow.
The three Pioneer players in the key, confused as to which of the Cougars to continue guarding, got jammed up in the key.
Kinsey snapped a pass to Val as soon as she cleared the key free of defenders.
Val took a step toward the sideline then flipped the ball to Pete who was moving in to take advantage of the screen she was setting.
Seeing that two of the Pioneer players had released from the key and were charging toward Val, Pete planted her feet and popped into the air catching Val’s pass on her way up. Her jump shot dropped through the net with barely a whisper.
Cougars 2 Pioneers 0
Pat smiled, the play had taken less than fifteen seconds and the confusion in the Pioneer defense proved that they weren’t prepared for the Cougar’s quick start. She watched as Tonie, Val and Terry ran to the opposite end of the court to set up their defense. Pete stayed to guard the in pass and Kinsey hovered around mid-court to help press the Pioneer guards.
Pete almost stole the inbound ball when the Pioneer player was lazy with the pass. As she played tight defense on the guard moving the ball up court, Kinsey moved in to add more pressure. The guard, uncomfortable with the added defense, tried to pass to her trailing teammate but Kinsey anticipated the move and slapped the pass out of the air. Pete chased down the loose ball, rifled a pass to Kinsey who was racing for the basket.
Kinsey easily out distanced the two Pioneer players who were caught flat-footed by the rapid turn of events. With the ball back in her hands, Kinsey flipped up a lay-up as she ran under the basket.
Cougars 4 Pioneers 0
“Yes,” Pat hissed under her breath.
“Time out,” Coach Sweever screamed at an official who stopped play with a blow on his whistle.
“Nice work,” Pat greeted the players as they trotted for the sideline to be met by their celebrating teammates. “That’s a great start but we’ve still got a lot of game left. Pete, Kinsey, I want you to keep up the pressure. Now that they’ve seen it, they’re going to come out expecting it. Let’s not disappoint them. But they’re going to try and pass it up court to avoid our press. So Val, keep your eyes open, if you think you can snag a pass go for it.”
“Right, coach,” Val nodded.
A loud buzzer announced the end of the time out.
“Keep it up, ladies,” Pat encouraged the players as they turned to return to the court. When she walked down the bench to reclaim her spot near the corner of the court, she saw Dawn had never left her seat during the team huddle. She pursed her lips together, glaring at the player.
Dawn didn’t seem to notice her coach’s displeasure. She stretched her arms over her head, her mouth opening wide in a yawn.
“Game boring you, Dawn?” Pat stood in front of the troublesome player.
“Most do, ‘less I’m playing,” Dawn shrugged, not at all caring if the coach liked her attitude or not. This trip had been a disaster from the start. First, Mandy didn’t make the trip. Then with all the activity on the plane as Pat went over game plans with the team meant she couldn’t sleep like she’d planned and the long night before spent with Mandy was starting to catch up with her. Then the long bus ride from the airport. And now, to top it all off, she was sitting on the bench instead of playing.
Pat bent over at the waist so she could look the player in the eyes. “Your time on the bench is to be spent observing, Dawn. It is a time for you to learn what’s expected of you when, and IF, you ever get into a game. I would strongly suggest you bag the attitude and get with the program. And quickly,” she growled, her jaw so tight she thought it might break just by saying the words.
Dawn glared at her coach.
“You have something on your mind you want to say?” Pat challenged her player.
Dawn thought about it but backed down. “No,” she mumbled.
“Good,” Pat said leaning in closer. “This is you last warning, Dawn. Next time, I’m throwing you off the team.” She straightened back up and turned to see what was happening on the court.
Frowning, Dawn stared at Pat’s back, ignoring the action on the floor.
“Why do you do that?” Latesha asked when Pat moved away moments later. She was sitting next to Dawn and heard the exchange between her and the coach.
“Do what?” Dawn snapped.
“Act like you don’t want to be here,” Latesha said. “You’ve acted like you’ve got a stick up your ass since you showed up for camp. I don’t get it. You’ve got a chance to play for one of the best teams in the league and you’re pissing off Coach like you want her to cut you. Why?”
“Maybe you like sitting on the bench but I should be out there,” Dawn indicated the court with a toss of her head.
“You’ve got to earn being out there,” Latesha laughed. “And you’re a long way from that, Dawn.” A whistle blew on the court and she stood to meet the players returning for the break. “A real long way,” she said as she joined the others.
Dawn slowly got to her feet and shuffled to the back of the huddle around Pat. She glanced up at the scoreboard to see that her teammates held a slight lead.
Cougars 11 Pioneers 8
“You’re doing real good out there,” Pat was telling the starters. “Let’s keep the pressure on. Tonie, I need to see more from you on the boards, okay?”
“Got it, Coach,” the player nodded.
“Good. Let’s go,” Pat sent the starters back out on the court.
Pat kept her first team on the floor the remainder of the first half and when the buzzer announced the end of play for the period the scoreboard showed them with a comfortable lead.
Cougars 47 Pioneers 32
“Alright, settle down,” Pat instructed her players. “I don’t want to spend any more time in here than necessary. We need to get back out there and get in some of the practice we missed before the game. Especially from the free throw line,” she looked down at a page of statistics Kelley had given her moments before. “Six for fourteen ain’t gonna cut it. We can’t waste those opportunities, ladies,” she frowned. “Okay, any injuries or problems I need to know about?” she asked not bothering to look over to the side of the locker room where Lizzie was using elastic bandages to wrap bags of ice around Kinsey’s knees.
When no one said anything, the coach continued.
“Listen, things have been going well for us,” Pat told her players. “But you can bet they’re going to come out ready to play so we can’t get lazy. We’re going to keep pressing, they haven’t seemed to come up with a way to handle that yet and until they do we keep it up. I want more movement around the basket, no standing,” she looked at Terry who had been trapped more than once by the Pioneer defenders because she had stopped moving.
Terry nodded, acknowledging the coach’s reprimand and underlying warning.
“We’ll start the second half with the same five on the floor. But I’m going to start rotating the starters out,” she looked at the reserves. “Rookies, when I send you in, don’t try anything fancy. I just want you to get the feel for being out there. Your job is to hold the lead. If things start to get ugly the starters go back in, okay?” After receiving nods from all including Dawn, she continued. “Sherry get with Pete and find out what to expect from their guards.”
Dawn’s head snapped up at the mention of Sherry’s name. She said nothing, content to simply sneer in Sherry’s direction.
“Anything to add?” Pat asked her assistant coaches.
“Yeah,” Kelley spoke up. “Tonie, you’re still getting boxed out under the basket. Before you go out there, I want to see you, Ashley and Stacy,” she told the post players. “Let’s come up with a way to prevent that.”
“Good,” Pat nodded. “Alright, get out and get some practice. Stay loose.”
Pat watched the players run out of the locker room before walking over to sit next to Kinsey.
The guard did her best to hide the pain she was experiencing but her coach had caught the grimace before she could cover it.
“I’m not going to ask, Kinsey,” Pat said, rubbing her own aching knee. “I know you hurt.”
“I’ll be ready to play, Coach.”
Pat nodded. “Season is long, K. It’s only going to get worse.”
“You telling me to quit,” Kinsey asked, her eyes reflecting the anguish she was suffering over the prospect.
“No,” Pat smiled, sadly.
Kinsey waited for the coach to say more but Pat remained silent. Finally she could stand the silence no longer, “how long do I have, Coach?”
“The Seattle game,” Pat told her. “I’ll need to make a decision before our first pre-season game.”
“I can play, Coach,” Kinsey almost cried when she said the words, she wanted so much for them to be true.
“Then do it,” Pat reached out, placing her hand at the top of Kinsey’s arm. “If you can, the position is yours,” she gently squeezed the guard’s shoulder to emphasize her feelings.
“You earned it, K,” Pat stood, pulling her hand back. “Get out there in time for the second half. I want you at point.”
“You got it, Coach,” Kinsey grinned. The coach’s support meant a lot to her and she didn’t want to do anything to make Pat question that support.
As the starters took the floor at the start of the second half, Sherry returned to her place on the bench. Just the thought of getting into the game was making her so anxious she was having trouble sitting still. She sat on the edge of the bench, her legs twitching violently with nervous energy.
Pat standing at the end of the bench watched Sherry wondering if the guard would shake her teeth loose, she was bouncing so hard. Smirking, she walked back and sat next to her restless player. “You want to slow down some,” she smiled at Sherry. “You’re bouncing so much I’m starting to get seasick.”
“Sorry, Coach,” Sherry reddened, forcing her legs to remain still. “I’m just a little nervous, I guess.”
“I know,” Pat softened her tone. “But try to keep that energy for when you’re out there, that’s when you’re going to need it.”
“I’ll try,” Sherry smiled.
“Good. I’m going to send you in with Pete. I want you on point.”
“Are you sure, Coach?” Sherry was surprised that the more experienced player wouldn’t be handling the key position.
“I’m sure,” Pat nodded. “You can do this, Sherry,” she placed a hand on the guard’s knee.
Sherry’s sharp intake of breath wasn’t caused by the thought of taking over the responsibility of the point guard position. It was the feel of the warm hand against her bare skin that caused her to react.
Pat slowly removed her hand, wondering why she had put it there in the first place and why she didn’t want to remove it once she had. “Um,” she knew she wanted to say something but had forgotten what.
“I’ll, uh,” Sherry placed her hand on the spot Pat’s had just vacated. “I’ll be ready, Coach. Um, whenever… Yeah, whenever, you are.”
“Yeah,” Pat started to stand. “Whenever I am. Yeah, ready,” she mumbled as she stood watching the game with unseeing eyes.
A buzzer announced a break in play and broke Pat’s spell.
“’Sherry get in there and watch out for seventeen,” Pat gave the uniform number of one of the Pioneer players. “She’s quicker than she looks.”
Sherry ran to the scorer’s table. “Coach said for me to play point,” she told Pete after trotting out next to her.
“It’s yours,” Pete grinned easily. As long as she was playing, she didn’t care what position she took. “And Sherry.”
“Relax,” Pete smiled. “You’ll do fine. Coach wouldn’t put you in if she thought different.”
“Thanks,” Sherry smiled. “I hope you’re right, on both counts.” She glanced up at the scoreboard.
Cougars 55 Pioneers 40
“Just hold them, huh?” Sherry sighed.
“Just hold them,” Pete assured her.
“Cougar ball, end line,” one of the trio of officials called.
Pete trotted to the spot the official was pointing at and waited for him to put the ball into play.
Sherry bounced in place as she waited for play to resume. When the official tossed Pete the ball, she sprung into action. She sprinted for the end of the court, running in a wide arc that took her directly in front of Pete. Her defender was caught off guard by her quick movement and she was able to pluck Pete’s pass out of the air uncontested. By the time her defender caught up with her she was almost to mid-court. Running the same play Kinsey had set up at the start of the game, Sherry dribbled across the line as Pete ran past her on the right.
But the Pioneers were ready this time and when Latesha and Tonie ran their crossing patterns through the key their defenders made the necessary switch in their defensive roles.
Sherry saw that the play wasn’t going to work, Latesha was covered and another defender had come out to pick up Pete. She had to do something. With the Pioneer players sagging off to the right side in anticipation of the Cougars play, Terry stood at the top of the key relatively unguarded. Sherry snapped a pass to Terry. The Pioneer players, realizing their mistake, adjusted to stop the post player from having an easy stroll down the key. Sherry ran around the back of Terry and down the left side of the key drawing even more of the defense to that side. “Pete,” she barked at Terry as soon as the other guard’s defender dropped off.
Terry took one step for the basket before flipping a no look pass out to the open guard who quickly popped in the air for a short jump shot.
‘That felt good,’ Sherry smiled as the ball dropped through the net. ‘Maybe holding them won’t be so hard after all.’
Cougars 57 Pioneers 40
If Sherry could have taken back her thoughts, she would have moments later. The player Pat had warned her about grabbed the ball before it hit the floor and flipped it to a teammate waiting on the out of bounds side of the end line. A split second later, the ball was flying through the air in the direction of mid-court where it dropped into the hands of Pioneer player number seventeen.
Sherry raced after the ball and player but before she could catch her the ball dropped through the net at the other end of the court.
Cougars 57 Pioneers 43
“Welcome to the big leagues, rookie,” number seventeen smirked as she backpedaled past Sherry.
Sherry looked for Pat, sure that her coach would be wanting to say something to her. She was surprised to see Pat standing calmly on the sidelines, her lips slightly upturned in the beginnings of an ‘I told you so’ smile. Sherry grinned, mouthing the word ‘oops’ as she shrugged her shoulders at her coach.
Sherry played another few minutes before Pat sent Wendy, another reserve guard, in to replace her. Kinsey was sent in at the same time to replace Pete.
“Told ya, you’d do okay,” Pete grinned as she trotted towards the bench with the rookie.
“Except for that open three-pointer I gave up,” Sherry grinned back.
“Lucky shot,” Pete laughed. “Normally, she can’t hit anything outside twelve feet.”
“Great night for her to get lucky,” Sherry grumbled.
“Hey, you didn’t let it get to you,” Pete told her. “She didn’t get past you again and that’s what’s important.”
“You did good out there, Sherry,” Pat smiled at the returning players. “You too, Pete.”
“Gee, thanks, Coach,” Pete smirked, grabbing a cup of water and emptying it.
Cougars 83 Pioneers 74
With less than three minutes left in the game, Pat pulled an obviously limping Kinsey out of the game and sent Sherry in. She also sent Dawn in to replace Tonie.
“’Bout time,” Dawn griped when she got to the scorer’s table. “Don’t get in my way out there, rookie,” she told Sherry, bumping into her slightly when they were waved onto the court by the referee.
Sherry let Dawn run past without responding to her comment or the physical contact. She had too much to worry about without taking on Dawn with Pioneer player number seventeen waiting at the other end of the court. She trotted to the within a few feet of the player, hoping easily from one foot to the other while she waited for play to resume. She wasn’t really looking forward to the next few minutes of play, the Pioneer player never stopped moving and even though she’d manage to contain her pretty well before, she knew it was only a matter of time before number seventeen broke free. She pressed her lips together, determined not to let that happen.
The whistle blew and play was on.
The teams exchanged possessions with neither being able to make much of a change in the number of points separating them on the scoreboard.
The Pioneers had control of the ball but a badly aimed pass sent the ball out of bounds and turned possession over to the Cougars.
With play stopped, Pat wondered if she should take Sherry out, the rookie was beginning to look tired. She glanced up at the clock, less than forty seconds remained to play, and decided to leave her in.
Pete took the ball from the official and flipped it to Sherry who started up court closely guarded by Pioneer seventeen. The play Pat had signaled her to run called for Dawn to set a screen at the top of the key. Sherry dribbled straight for her teammate, Pioneer seventeen dogging her every step. She caught the movement of Pete running up the opposite side of the court, her defender playing well off of her. Pulling up short, she surprised Pioneer seventeen who ran past her. Now clear of her defender, she snapped the ball to Pete.
Pete slowed her dribble to allow Dawn time to set the screen, something she seemed to be having difficulty doing.
Val saw Dawn struggling to rid herself of her defender. She moved into the key, taking her own defender with her and drawing another out of position. With the key jammed with Pioneer players and Dawn still fighting for position, Val cut through the crowd, coming out at the top of the key momentarily undefended. She planted her feet, back to the basket.
Pete fired the ball to Sherry who was moving in fast to take advantage of Val’s screen.
Sherry grabbed the pass, dribbling another couple of steps towards Val before pulling up for a three point attempt. Just as she prepared to release the ball, Pioneer seventeen left her own feet.
In an attempt at blocking the long shot, Pioneer seventeen flew through the air in Sherry’s direction. Her momentum carried her into Sherry, knocking the ball from her hands and the rookie to the floor.
Sherry landed hard.
Whistles blew stopping play as the Pioneer player was called for the foul.
“What the hell was that?” Pat shouted at the officials. She was several steps out on the court before Marcie and Kelley corralled her. “Let me go,” Pat growled at her assistant coaches as they struggled to pull her back to the safety of the bench. “That was an intentional foul,” she yelled at the officials over Marcie’s shoulder.
“Pat, what’s the matter with you,” Marcie yelled, standing her ground between the irate coach and the officials. “Back off before you get called for a technical yourself.”
“She’s right, Pat,” Kelley was having trouble holding the larger woman back. “Look, Sherry’s okay. She’s back up.”
Pat looked over Marcie’s shoulder to see Sherry walking for the free throw stripe and appearing to be uninjured. The rookie was looking back over her shoulder at her coach, a look of dismay on her face.
Sherry was confused as to why Pat seemed so upset by the contact. Even though she’d been knocked to the floor, it wasn’t that bad of a hit and she hadn’t been injured. The blow she’d taken from Dawn that day in practice had caused more damage. Her forehead was creased with concern as she continued to watch Marcie and Kelley force Pat back to the bench.
“You okay?” Marcie asked, more than a little worried over Pat’s unusual behavior.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Pat said, moving slowly backwards.
“You need to get off the court, coach,” an official said as he approached the women.
Pat quickened her backward motion. “I’m off,” she said when she felt the edge of the bench on the back of her legs.
The official stood watching a few seconds deciding what to do, then turned back to the game without making any call against Pat.
The Pioneer fans wasted no time in strongly voicing their opinion about the non call.
Pat dropped onto the bench as the ball was handed to Sherry for her first free throw attempt. Marcie and Kelley moved down to the opposite end of the bench before sitting.
“What the hell was that about?” Marcie asked as Sherry made her first shot.
“Don’t ask me,” Kelley answered. “I’ve never seen her react that way before.”
“It wasn’t even that bad of a hit.”
“I know,” Kelley said as the second free throw dropped through.
Both women would have been interested to know that Pat was having the very same thoughts.
“Kinsey in for Sherry,” Pat said to the player sitting next to her without taking her eyes off Sherry as she prepared for her final free throw. Even with only a handful of seconds left to play, she wanted the rookie out of the game.
Kinsey ran for the scorer’s table.
The third free throw dropped true and Sherry trotted to the bench taking the spot Kinsey had vacated.
Pat waited until play resumed before asking Sherry, “you okay?”
“Yeah,” Sherry assured her coach, very aware of the woman’s reaction to the play. “She didn’t hit me that hard. I’m fine. What about you?” the words were out before Sherry realized she was asking them.
Pat looked at the rookie, considering whether she should answer the question or not. “I’m good,” she smirked, embarrassed by her uncharacteristic outburst. “A little crazy, but good.”
“Good,” Sherry grinned.
The buzzer announced the end of the game.
Cougars 98 Pioneers 89
Pat followed the team off the court. She slowed her steps to give the players time to celebrate when they reached the locker room. She also wanted a few moments to get control of her own emotions. Why had seeing Sherry take the hard blow caused her to react the way she had? Ever since she’d first seen Sherry, she’d been doing things out of character. Why? What was happening to her? As she tried to make sense out it, Coach Sweever fell into step beside her.
“You know, that wasn’t intended to be a cheap shot.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I, uh,” Sweever hesitated, he wasn’t quite sure if Pat meant what she said or not. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you react that way Pat. I just wanted you to know. Crystal may play hard, but she’s not a dirty player,” he defended his player.
Pat stopped, facing her friend. “Look, Roland. I,” she paused, reaching up to run the fingers on one hand roughly through her hand. “I don’t know what happened to me. I’ve never done that before and… Well, I just don’t know why I did it tonight. Look, I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t intentional.”
“Okay, Pat,” Sweever breathed out a sigh of relief. “As long as we’re okay.”
“We’re fine,” Pat nodded. “I’ve got to get to my team.”
“Sure. Good game, Pat,” Sweever stood, watching his distracted friend walk away. ‘I hope whatever is on your mind,’ he thought, ‘is worth what almost happened tonight.’
After a night in a hotel, the team rose early in order to catch their scheduled bus ride to the Denver airport. Then, because of the reservations arranged by Mandy, they were forced to sit and wait in the terminal for their flight to Missoula in the afternoon. Pat had been furious but there was nothing she could do but suffer along with the players. By the time the bus arrived in the parking lot of Cougar Arena, day was turning to night and everyone was grateful for the next day Pat had given them free from basketball.
Pat waited for everyone to depart the bus before stepping down to the pavement. Most of the players walked directly to their cars to head home for some much deserved rest. A few, including Sherry, were walking to the side door of the Cougar Arena. Pat felt a smile tucking at the corners of her lips as she watched the player enter the building.
Squealing tires broke the evening stillness.
Pat glanced toward the end of the parking lot where Mandy’s car was whip-tailing towards an exit.
“No doubt Dawn is with her,” Marcie said as she watched the car. She had been helping Lizzie and Kelley pull equipment bags out from the storage compartments under the bus.
“The way Mandy drives,” Lizzie frowned as the car sped through an intersection just as the light changed to red. “Dawn will be lucky to survive the season if she keeps hanging out with that one.”
“I’m surprised Mac hasn’t clipped her wings yet,” Kelley grumbled. “She’s nothing but trouble.”
“If Mac doesn’t do something soon,” Marcie hefted a heavy bag onto her shoulder. Seeing the coach walking towards them, she didn’t bother to finish her thought.
“Let’s get this stuff inside,” Pat picked up a bag. Even though she agreed with what they were saying, she didn’t like Mac being talked about in that way. “We have a team to coach,” she told the women as she walked away. “Let Mac take care of the other stuff.”
Marcie started to say something but was stopped by a hand placed on her arm and shake of the head by the other assistant coach.
“She’s the coach, Marcie,” Kelley said, lifting a pair of bags off the ground. “She’ll deal with Mandy and Dawn when the time comes. Until then, let’s just do what she says.”
“Let’s hope she doesn’t wait too long,” Marcie grumbled, following Kelley.
Pat walked down the corridor and continued past her office, choosing instead to carry the bag she’d pick up outside into the training room where it belonged. As she walked through the locker room, she spied Sherry sitting in front of her locker changing into a pair of hiking boots.
“Little late for a hike, don’t you think,” Pat grinned at the player.
“Yeah, it probably is,” Sherry laughed. “But, besides my basketball shoes, these are the only other kind I own.”
“Must make it kinda awkward on a date,” Pat smirked.
Sherry looked up at Pat, wondering why the coach would have thought of that.
Pat, seeing the expression on the player’s face, felt her cheeks began to redden as she realized what she had said. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I need to get this bag put away.”
Pat hurried into the training room leaving Sherry staring after her, an intrigued smile on her face. She went back to tying her boot laces when Marcie, Kelley and Lizzie walked through on their way to the training room.
Mac entered the locker room and looked around hoping to spot her coach. “Good game, ladies,” she said to Latesha and Amie who were heading back outside.
“Thanks, Mac,” Latesha smiled.
“Coach around?” Mac asked.
“I think she went into the training room,” Pete answered, hurrying to catch up with the others.
“Thanks.” Mac walked for the back of the room, pausing when she saw Sherry. “Good game.”
“Thanks,” Sherry started to stand as she talked to the team owner.
“Stay,” Mac chuckled. “I don’t expect my players to stand whenever I enter a room. Although, I’ve heard that a couple of the owners do,” she grinned. “You looked pretty good out there, last night.” She watched the game on one of the sports channels.
“Really?” Sherry blushed. “I was so nervous, I felt like a three-legged dancer.”
“You didn’t look it,” Mac leaned against the row of lockers. “’Bout that last play, you get hurt?”
“No,” Sherry shook her head, “just got knocked on my ass.”
“Was it dirty?”
“No, it was a clean play,” Pat walked out of the training room. She had heard Mac’s voice and guessed the owner would be seeking her out. And she was pretty sure why, the Cougar owner did not approve of a coach that threw unjustified tantrums during a game. “I over-reacted.”
“Any particular reason?” Mac asked. It was the first time she had seen Pat come unglued and she wanted to know why. Her tone wasn’t angry like she figured Pat was expecting but rather curious.
Sherry looked at Pat, she was more than a little curious herself to hear the coach’s response.
Pat ran her fingers through her short hair, blowing out a long breath as she did. “It was the end of a long day, Mac. I don’t know why I reacted like I did. I blew it,” she pursed her lips together in an apologetic grimace. “Can we just leave it at that?” she asked, hoping the owner would let the matter drop.
“Alright,” Mac agreed, pushing herself off the row of lockers to stand unassisted. She wasn’t quite ready to let the matter drop but she wasn’t willing to question her coach any further in front of a player. “Practice tomorrow?” she asked.
“I gave the team tomorrow off,” Pat said, relieved that Mac wasn’t pursuing her behavior in Denver any further. “It was a long trip for an over-night stay,” she said, her voice hardening when she thought of all the time the team had had to waste because of the owner’s niece. “They can use the rest. We’ll have an afternoon practice day after tomorrow. Then we’ll get back in the swing of things the next day.”
“Seattle is only five days away,” Mac needlessly reminded her coach.
“We’ll be ready.”
“Good,” Mac turned to leave. “New travel itineraries are on your desk. Make sure you take a look at them,” Mac called back over her shoulder. “Let Mandy know if you want any changes.”
“Alright,” Pat frowned. She’d have to review those before she left for the night. So much for her plans to grab something for dinner on the way home and go to bed early.
“Guess that’s why you get paid the big bucks,” Sherry smirked, shutting her locker door and spinning the dial on her lock.
“Always something to do,” Sherry said. Seeing that the coach still wasn’t following she added, “checking the itineraries.”
“Oh, yeah,” Pat grinned. “I signed on to coach basketball and I spend half my time doing everything but.”
“Sounds like you could use a good assistant,” Sherry teased. It was no secret on the team that Mandy had not been Pat’s choice for the position.
“I could. Got anyone in mind?”
“Not at the moment but I’ll keep my ears open in case I hear of anyone.”
“You need anything from us tonight, Pat,” Kelley asked, walking out of the training room.
“Nah, go home and get some rest. Take tomorrow off then we’ll meet Tuesday morning and go over things before practice.”
“Sounds good. You got any plans for tomorrow?” the assistant coach asked.
“My legs need a good stretching after all the sitting I’ve done in the last forty-eight hours. Thought I’d go for a little hike,” she looked out of the corner of her eye to see if Sherry was paying attention. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the player trying not to look like she was listening.
“Where to this time?” Marcie came out of the training room with Lizzie.
“Haven’t done the Lee Creek trail in awhile, so I’ll probably head up there in the morning,” she was looking at Marcie and the others but she was talking to Sherry. “You could join me,” she offered, crossing her fingers that this wouldn’t be the time they decided to accept her offer.
“Go on a hike with you?” Lizzie laughed. “The last time I did that you practically ran up the mountain, brace and all. No thank you. I don’t have a week to recover right now.”
“Chicken,” Pat teased the team’s trainer.
“Don’t know why you call what you do hiking, you should be honest and just say you plan to charge up a mountain then turn around and charge back down. Hiking implies getting some enjoyment out of the experience. With you it’s just seeing how fast you can get from point A to point B.”
Sherry thought about contradicting the trainer’s comment. She always enjoyed her hikes with the coach.
“Wuss,” Pat chuckled.
“Humpf,” Lizzie huffed. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat,” she told Marcie and Kelley. “Leave this fool to her ‘hiking’. Doubt anyone in this town is fool enough to go with her.”
Pat smiled to herself. She was pretty sure there was at least one person who would show up at the trailhead in the morning.
“If you go,” Kelley said as Lizzie was pulling her towards the corridor. “Be careful.” She had also hiked with the coach on a few occasions and knew how Pat pushed herself on the trails. She worried about her being alone if her knee gave out on her.
“I will,” Pat assured her assistant coach. She waited until she heard to door at the end of the corridor slam shut before turning to face Sherry. “Seems we’re last out again.”
“Any plans for tomorrow?”
“I was thinking of a hike.”
“Care for some company?”
“I’d like that.”
“Good,” Sherry bent to pick up her bag. “Eight?”
Pat nodded, “go up Highway 12 out of Lolo. Look for the Lee Creek campground,” she knew Sherry was still getting used to where places were located. “Start up the trail. I’ll meet you where it opens up coming out of the trees.”
“Good night, coach.”
Sherry pulled off the highway at Lee Creek campground and parked in the small parking area located just before the entrance to the campsites. She was surprised to see the lot vacant of any other vehicles and checked her hiking guide again to make sure she was in the right place. Satisfied she hadn’t made a mistake, she pushed open the car door and got out. There was an interpretative sign at the side of the parking area and she walked over to read it.
“I’ll be,” Sherry said to herself as she read that the trail behind the sign was part of the original Nee-Me-Poo trail, the Indian trail that Lewis and Clark had followed on their trips to and from the Pacific Ocean. Returning to the car for her pack, she made a mental note to ask Pat if she’d ever hiked it. Maybe they could do so another day.
Sherry slipped her pack on her back then locked the car before walking across the parking area. The trailhead for the trail she was to meet Pat on started a short distance up the forest service road that split the campground in half. As she reached the junction of the parking area and the forest road, she saw a box of pamphlets describing the trail and pulled one free to read as she walked. She was interested to read that the trail Pat had chosen was actually an interpretative trail offering living examples of the effects of natural events on the forest. The trail wound its way through sections of forest that had been burned, logged, or blown over by gale force winds. She would observe how birds building their homes affected trees and how the process of trees decaying rejuvenated the forest.
Sherry tucked the pamphlet into her pocket when she reached the trailhead which was no more than a pine needle covered path leading up the side of the mountain behind the campground. She started up the path. At first, the trail provided only a view of the campsites and campers but as she climbed up the steep grade, the campground was left far below and she found herself surrounded by pine trees of every shape and size. It was hard for her to believe she would see the devastation described in the pamphlet as she looked around at the lush green forest she was walking through.
It took several minutes for Sherry to make the climb up the grade that marked the start of the trail and she was breathing heavily when the trees suddenly fell away leaving her standing in a small clearing that was dominated by a huge mound of granite that had been forced up from the center of the earth eons ago.
Sitting on top of the mountain of rock, arms stretched behind her propping her body up as she leaned back with her face tilted up to the morning sun was Pat.
Sherry gasped when she saw the other woman. ‘She’s absolutely beautiful,’ she thought.
Pat heard the sudden intake of breath and sat up, rolling her head around in search of its source. One could never be too careful when out in the woods, you never knew when a deer, elk or even a bear might cross your path. She smiled when she saw Sherry standing a short distance away. “Good morning,” she said, pushing herself up to stand. “I was beginning to think you’d changed your mind,” she brushed her hands together to rid them of granules of rock.
Sherry smiled, walking closer to the boulder. “No, it just took me a little while to make it up this first stretch. I had to stop and rest a few times,” she grinned, sheepishly.
“Still getting use to the altitude?” Pat asked, climbing down from the boulder.
“Seems so. I didn’t see your pickup down there.”
“Parked a ways up the forest road. Didn’t think it would be too good of an idea to have both our cars parked there. This trail doesn’t get much use other than by the campers. But the other trail gets plenty. The lot will probably be few in an hour or two.”
“I was going to ask you about the other trail.”
“Don’t let the sign fool you,” Pat chuckled. “The section of original trail is about a hundred feet long then it disappears into a jumble of logging roads and more recent trails. Almost impossible to follow just where Lewis and Clark were supposed to have walked.”
“Still it would be interesting to walk that hundred feet.”
“It is. You should do just to have the experience,” Pat told the player. “If you go early enough in the day, you won’t have to do it with a thousand tourists.”
“Is that why you picked this trail? Less people?”
“Nope,” Pat walked up to stand in front of Sherry. “I like it.” ‘And I like you and I want to show it to you,’ she heard the thoughts coming and somehow managed to stop from saying them. She wasn’t as successful in stopping her arm from lifting as she started to place a hand on Sherry’s arm.
“Hope it’s not all like that first section,” Sherry twisted around to look back at the path that had brought her to this point, the movement preventing the coach from touching her. “Don’t want you calling me a wuss because I have to rest all the time.” She recalled the conversation the day before and the coach’s use of the word with Lizzie. She turned back around, hoping Pat wouldn’t still be standing so close. It wasn’t that she didn’t want the woman to touch her; it was more that she was confused over her feelings for Pat. Or was she?
“It’s not,” Pat stepped back a few steps, needing the safety of the extra space between Sherry and herself. “From here it switches off between ups, downs and flat sections. But if you need to rest, I won’t think you’re a wuss,” she smiled, her voice lowering into almost a purr. “I promise.”
“Thanks,” Sherry smiled, biting her lower lip.
Pat thought she looked adorable. “Shall we?” she swept her arm towards the trail, bending low at the waist as she did.
“Sure,” Sherry giggled. “You lead.”
“Why me?” Pat asked as she started up the trail.
“Because it’s early and we’re probably the first people to walk along here today.”
“So you get to break through all the spider webs.” It hadn’t taken Sherry long to figure out hiking in the mountains came with its own unique distractions and she really hated walking through the invisible threads the spiders draped across the trails in hopes of trapping a fly or other bug in the sticky strands.
“Gee, thanks,” Pat grumbled.
“You’re welcome,” Sherry skipped a couple of steps, happy beyond words to be where she was and with the woman walking a few steps in front of her. She’d worry about the whys and wherefores another time.
“It’s beautiful here,” Sherry said, gazing down the ravine they were sitting above.
They had followed the trail for a couple of miles, stopping often to explore interesting sights they came upon. They had finally reached a junction where the trail split offering them four choices for continuing. They could have turned back and followed the trail back to their vehicles; they could have taken the trail splitting off to the left and followed it to the hot springs several miles away; they could have taken the trail to the right and worked their way back down to the forest road where Pat had left her pickup. They decided on the trail that continued in the same direction they had been hiking, it wasn’t yet noon and neither woman was ready to part company.
The trail took them up over the crest of a ridge, dropping down on the opposite side into a u-shaped ravine. The women found the trunk of a fallen tree a perfect place to sit and enjoy the view and their lunch.
“Look,” Pat whispered, pointed down to a stand of trees at the bottom of the ravine where a doe and fawn were cautiously approaching a pool of water.
“It’s so cute,” Sherry gushed watching the baby animal explore its surroundings.
Pat turned to look at the entranced woman, a silly grin spreading across her face.
“What?” Sherry asked, wiping at her mouth. “Do I have peanut butter stuck to me or something?”
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
Pat almost told her. Almost. “No reason,” she turned away.
Sherry studied the woman sitting beside her. She was attractive. Very attractive. And she was fun to be with, outside of the team that is. She wanted to reach out and touch her and she felt her heart do a double beat when she thought about it. Maybe it was time to face the obvious. “Pat,” she murmured.
Pat turned back around, her breathing stopped when she saw the look on Sherry’s face. It was a look she had noticed on her own several times since she’d met the player. “We can’t,” she whispered.
“Why?” Sherry asked, already knowing the answer.
Pat didn’t say anything. She just sat and looked at the woman she was thinking more and more about every day. Slowly she raised her hand, laying it tenderly against Sherry’s cheek. Her thumb gently tracing the lips she so longed to kiss.
Sighing, Sherry leaned into the touch. “I…” she started but was stopped by a finger pressed against her lips.
“Don’t,” Pat whispered, pulling her hand away. “Please.”
Seeing that Pat wanted to say more, Sherry waited.
“I’m your coach, Sherry,” Pat’s soft voice broke the silence. “I can’t have an affair with a player.”
“Is that what you want?” Sherry asked just as softly.
“I… I don’t know what I want,” Pat said honestly. “I can’t lie and say I’m not attracted to you.”
“There isn’t a but,” Pat smiled, sadly. “I would like to take this further, Sherry, but…”
“Ah, so there is a but,” Sherry grinned, attempting to release the tension building between them.
“Yeah, I guess there is a but,” Pat grinned. “It’s in my contract, no relationships with players outside the game. I’m breaking it just being here.”
“So why are you?”
“I don’t know,” Pat reached for her water bottle, taking a long swallow of the refreshing liquid. “Heck, I haven’t known why I’ve done anything when it comes to you since I saw you playing for Karen. I don’t know why I asked you to camp. I don’t know why I asked Mac to keep you on the team after camp. I don’t know why I went bongos in Denver.”
“I kinda hoped it was because you thought I was good player,” Sherry said, her feelings slightly bruised by the coach’s comments.
“You are a good player,” Pat told her. “You would have no trouble finding a place on any roster in the league.”
“But I didn’t need any more guards,” Pat scrubbed her fingers through her hair.
A habit Sherry was noticing she did when she was nervous. Was Pat as anxious now as she was?
“What I’m saying is…” More scrubbing of her scalp. “Hell, I don’t know what I’m saying. Look, Sherry, I’ll admit there’s something between us. Something I’d very much like to see where it leads but I can’t. Not under our present circumstances. I’m sorry.”
“Can we still do this? Be friends?” Sherry thought her heart would stop beating if Pat said no.
“Oh, gods, yes,” Pat grinned. “I’m not sure I could function otherwise.”
“It’ll mean breaking the rules,” Sherry reminded her.
“If we keep doing it the way we have been we should be okay. We come in different vehicles so it’s not like we’re together, together. And we can always go our separate ways if we meet anybody on the trails.” What she was describing sounded so dirty, like she was sneaking around in back alleys to have an illicit affair with a married woman. That’s not how she felt and she looked at Sherry hoping she understood.
“As long as this is all we do, it should be okay,” Pat said, trying to convince herself more than Sherry. It was wrong and she knew it. But, she was ready to accept the consequences. She thought. She hoped.
“Alright,” Sherry agreed. Even though she wanted more, she understood Pat’s position. At least her head did, her heart was screaming, ‘KISS ME, YOU IDIOT’.
“We better start back,” Pat said. If she didn’t get up and start moving right now, she was going to do something stupid like kiss the lips that looked so inviting. She stood, pulling her pack on and waited for Sherry to do the same.
In silence, with each woman absorbed by her own thoughts, they retraced their steps back to the trail junction. Pat wave a quick goodbye before taking the cutoff that would lead to her pickup.
Sherry watched Pat until her movements were completely hidden by the trees then she backtracked to the trailhead. When she came to the large boulder where she had first seen Pat that morning, she climbed to the top and sat in the same spot Pat had been sitting. It was almost sundown when she finally climbed down and returned to the car to drive back to town.
Continued in Part 7
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