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“Hold up,” Kelley blew the whistle hanging around her neck to stop the practice.
“Bet you’re proud of yourself getting Kinsey cut from the team,” Dawn sneered at Sherry, brushing against the smaller player.
Sherry, shaking her head in frustration at the endless stream of insults coming from her teammate, moved a few feet away from the post player who had been trying to bait her ever since Pat announced Kinsey’s retirement earlier in the week. She was glad Friday had finally arrived and she’d have some time away from Dawn and her annoying comments over the weekend.
“Dawn,” Kelley walked into the midst of the players on the court. “Are you in the right position for this play?”
Dawn forgot about Sherry, for the moment. There’d be plenty of time to hassle her later. “I think so,” she told the assistant coach.
“Think so?” Kelley blew out an irritated breath. Trying to coach Dawn was a real study in patience, she wondered again how Pat had maintained hers for so long. “Don’t think, look,” she barked at the player. “Where are you supposed to be?”
Dawn casually spun her head from side-to-side, noticing for the first time that by going after Sherry she had taken herself several feet out of position. “Sorry, Coach,” she mumbled, shuffling over to where she should be.
“Let’s run it again,” Kelley said, stepping back out of the way.
Sherry trotted to the mid-court line. When the rest of the players were set, she dribbled for the key.
Pat was having the team practice a new play she was hoping would help open up their offense. Dawn, at low post, and Terry, playing high post, were on the left side of the key, each standing four feet off the hash line. Val and Pete took up identical positions on the right side. This spread out the Cougars taking the roles of defensive players, making it difficult for any one player to be double-teamed.
Sherry dribbled to the apex of the three-point arch painted on the floor. Pete cut across the top of the key, catching a snap pass from Sherry who followed her pass by running straight down the middle of the key. The defense sagged into the key to protect against the high-scoring guard getting the ball back.
Pete dropped the ball off to Terry, spun around the high post cutting for the corner of the court and the screen Dawn was supposed to set.
If the defense reacted the way Pat expected them to, the post player should have five options for scoring available to her. If open she could take the shot herself, standing at the top corner of the key she was well within her range. Or she could rifle a pass to Pete who should have a shot behind Dawn’s screen. If the defense had followed Pete, then Val should have a shot or Dawn should be in position for an easy turn-around jumper. And if none of those options were there, she could always pass the ball back to Sherry who would be coming towards her for a shot from the top of the key. But for the play to work, it required split second timing and everyone had to be in position and ready since Terry was instructed to pass to whichever of her teammates was open.
Terry spun around to face the basket, the ball held out of the reach of the player guarding her. Dawn was having trouble holding her screen so Pete was out. Sherry’s defensive player had stayed with her, no shot there. She snapped the ball to Val who was momentarily unguarded.
Val popped in the air, the ball leaving her hands for the basket.
“Run it again,” Pat said.
Sherry retraced her steps to mid-court and started the play again.
Pat had them run the play several times, each time noticing that regardless of where the defensive players were when she reached the top of the arch, Sherry passed the ball to Terry, passing up some relatively open shots. Before the team could set up for another repetition, she called Pete over to her.
Pete listened to what Pat told her, nodded then ran back out on the court. As the players ran through the play again, she made a note of how open Sherry had been when she gave possession of the ball to Terry.
“Five minute break,” Pat called out when the ball dropped through the basket. “Marcie, Kelley, I want to talk.” She really had nothing to say to her assistant coaches but she wanted Pete to have time to talk with Sherry.
As Sherry trotted for the sideline and her bottle of water, Pete trotted up beside her. “Why didn’t you shoot it?”
“I’m supposed to pass it to Terry,” Sherry said, grabbing her water bottle and taking a long swallow of the cool liquid. “That’s the way the play is designed.”
“I know but Coach doesn’t expect us to run it exactly like she drew it. She lets us play, if you know what I mean. If you have a better shot or play, you take it.”
“Really?” Sherry looked at the veteran guard, a mixed look of intrigue and confusion on her face. She’d had no such freedom in college. In fact, she’d been yanked out of more than a few games because she hadn’t followed a play exactly as her coach had diagramed it. The thought of being able to follow her own initiative if she thought she saw an easier way to put the ball in the basket was something she was happy to consider.
“Yeah, Pete grinned. She could almost see the wheels turning inside Sherry’s head as she visualized all the ways she could put into action what she was being told. “Only thing Coach cares is if you score. If you do, no problem. So go with you instincts, Sherry.”
“Alright, I’ll try.”
“Good. ‘Sides, it’ll help keep the other teams guessing. Remember, the point guard sets the tone for the game. If they can’t figure out what you’re going to do, they can’t cheat on defense. It makes it easier on the rest of us.”
“Right,” Sherry took another long drink. She’d often thought about how much better a player she could have been in college if she’d had a coach who thought the same way. Being restricted in her movements on the court had not only held back her development as a player but had also kept her natural talent well hidden.
“Don’t think,” Pete grinned. “In your case, I don’t think it helps your play.”
“Gee thanks,” Sherry frowned.
“No, that’s not what I meant. You’ve got good instincts out there. Great, really. Just go with them.”
“Okay, ladies,” Kelley called the players back onto the court. “Sherry, set it up again.”
This time when Sherry dribbled for the top of the arch, she didn’t hesitate like the past times to drop a pass off to Terry. Halfway between mid-court and Terry, she had seen the key was wide open as the defensive players followed their assignments. She quickened her pace, performing a quick half-step to kick into high gear. In less than two strides, she had gone from jogging up court to boring down on the center of the key at full speed, leaving her defensive player gaping open-mouthed at her. Completely uncontested, Sherry approached the basket, laying the ball off the backboard for an easy two points.
Pat smirked. ‘I knew she would do that,’ she told herself. But she wasn’t upset. It was exactly what she hoped would happen after Pete talked to the rookie.
“Look out league, we’ve got a dynamo at point,” Marcie, standing beside the coach, smiled.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Pat nodded. “Okay, gather up,” she called to the players. “Nice play, Sherry,” she grinned as the point guard trotted up to her. “That’s a good lesson for everyone. You can’t assume what is going to happen when you’re out there. You’ve got to pay attention and be ready to adjust at any second. Wendy,” she said to the guard who had been Sherry’s defensive player. “You should have been prepared for Sherry to make that move. There’s no way she should have caught you flat footed.”
“I’ll be ready next time, Coach,” Wendy mumbled. She was still shocked by how fast the rookie’s move had been. Even after playing in the league for the past three years, she could not think of any other guard who possessed the same quickness.
“Make sure you are,” Pat chuckled, trying to ease the veteran’s embarrassment. “Listen up,” she addressed the whole team, “tomorrow night we play our first home game. From that game on we don’t have any time to let down. Yes, we have two wins under our belts but they don’t mean anything. The only wins that matter are the ones we start counting tomorrow. We have a mission this year ladies and that mission is to win the championship. I promised Kinsey she’d be there to hold that golden basketball and I don’t break my promises.”
Sherry was surprised at Pat’s revelation, as were several other players. Many had not expected Pat to show such empathy towards the player they thought had been forced into retirement.
“Like I said, we have a mission. Mac wants it. I want it. Marcie and Kelley want it. The only question is if you want it,” she paused letting the players think about what she was saying. “I believe that the team standing here, right now, is the team that can and should win the championship. But I can’t make that happen. Only you can. DO YOU WANT IT?”
“YES,” came the shouted the response of several voices.
“Good,” Pat smiled. “But we have some problems, ladies. Problems we have to deal with now or we’ll destroy our chances. First, we have to start thinking and playing as a team. We don’t have stars on this team. Every single one of you is here because I thought you brought to the Cougars some element of the game we needed,” she looked into the eyes of every player. Laughing a little to her self when she saw the surprise reflected in Sherry’s eyes and the obvious doubt reflected in Dawn’s. ‘Okay, you two weren’t on my wish list but you’re here,’ she thought. ‘In one case, I’m very glad of that. In the other… Well we’ll just have to wait and see.’
“So quit thinking about who’s getting playing time that should be yours and start thinking about what you can do when you’re in the game to nail down the victory. I want the petty differences to end, now,” she glared at Dawn. “Next, we’ll never get to the championship with our free throw percentage. So starting today, every practice will end with each of you shooting one hundred free throws. And don’t think you can just stand at the stripe and toss the ball in the general direction of the basket. Every shot you take will be recorded. And if you don’t show continual improvement, I’ll make it two hundred every day.”
Several players groaned at the possibility. Not only did they not like to practice free throws but it took a long time to shoot one hundred, they didn’t want to contemplate the time it would take to shoot two hundred.
“Glad to see you’re paying attention,” Pat smirked at the players. “Kelley, Marcie and I will be out here watching you shoot. If we see something that we think needs to be changed, we’re going to tell you. I don’t care if it’s the way you’ve been shooting since grade school. Or it’s the way Daddy taught you. Or the way your college coach wanted them shot,” she said, knowing that most players were somewhat superstitious when it came to shooting free throws and very reluctant to change their patterns. “I do care if you’re missing more than you’re making. So if one of us comes to you with a suggestion, LISTEN TO WHAT WE’RE SAYING. Got it?”
“GOT IT, COACH.”
“Good. Sherry, Val, Wendy, and Pete, you can skip it. You’re all shooting above eighty percent. Something to aspire to ladies,” Pat told the other players. “Marcie split ‘em up,” Pat instructed her assistant. “And let’s get started.
“Hey, Pete,” Sherry called out to the other guard as she trotted down the corridor to the locker room.
“What’s up, rookie,” Pete turned around but continued walking backwards.
“I was wondering if you might have some other tips for me,” Sherry slowed to a walk when she caught up with the veteran player.
“Lots,” Pete grinned. “I was kinda hopin’ you’d ask. Come on,” she reversed directions, heading back down the corridor to the arena floor. “Let’s go back out here where we’ve got some room to work.”
“Great,” Sherry smiled, running after Pete.
“Not very good,” Pat grumbled, looking at the tally sheets Marcie and Kelley were handing her. “Damn, four for a hundred.” She glanced to the top of the sheet to read the player’s name. “She’s on double practice immediately.”
“I told her you’d probably say that. She says she didn’t shoot many free throws in college and her coach didn’t push it,” Kelley explained.
“Her coach now is going to push it. Four lousy percent,” Pat muttered, writing a note on a page in her notebook. “Tell Jade to start coming in before practice to take the other hundred. I’ll work with her then.”
The coaches were sitting at what during a game would be the scorer’s table but, was now just an empty surface to spread their papers out on. The arena was empty except for Pete and Sherry working together at one end of the floor. The rest of the players had been set free for the day.
“Don’t think so,” Marcie said as she watched the two players. “She’s a fast learner,” she said of the rookie guard who seemed to be having no trouble repeating the moves the veteran was showing her. Wonder why we never heard about her before?”
“Good question,” Pat murmured, not bothering to look up from her note writing.
“Played in a small conference, never made it to the NCAA tournament,” Kelley reviewed the bio they had on the player. “Put up decent numbers but nothing outstanding. Just another average college player,” she shrugged.
“That we almost missed recruiting because we thought that way,” Pat glared at her assistant coach. “I keep telling you numbers don’t show the whole picture. Maybe now you’ll believe me.” She gathered up her papers, shoving them into her bag. How close had she come to never meeting Sherry? If it hadn’t been for Mandy talking Mac into taking a look at Dawn, she might never have met the woman she was having so much trouble not thinking about. ‘Guess I owe Mandy for that,’ she thought. ‘Yeah, like I’d ever tell her.’ ”Unless you have something else, I’m going to my office to finish this,” she said, pushing herself up on the table and walking away.
“What was that all about?” Kelley asked as the coach stormed off.
“That’s a very good question,” Marcie answered. Hearing Pete laugh, she turned her attention to the two remaining players. “Hey, guys, call it a night will ya,” she shouted across the floor. “You have a game to rest up for tomorrow. Remember?”
“Yeah, Coach,” Pete waved back. “She’s right,” she turned to Sherry. “We should be going home.”
“Alright,” Sherry nodded. “Thanks for the help.”
“I’m glad to be of service,” Pete laughed. “I just wish some of the other rookies would ask.”
“I’ll mention it to them,” Sherry offered as they trotted down the corridor.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath, if I were you. Most rookies come into the league thinking they know everything. That’s why most of them never last more than a year or two.”
“Well I plan to be playing for a long time.” Sherry pushed open the door to the locker room, snatching two towels off the pile kept just inside the door. She tossed one to Pete as she used the other to wipe her face dry.
“And you will,” Pete wrapped the towel around her neck, trying to soak up the sweat covering it. “Damn, I didn’t realize it was so late,” she said looking at the clock on the wall. “I’m supposed to be going to a business dinner with my husband tonight. He’s gonna kill me. Look, I’ve got to run,” she said already rushing for her locker. “I’ve just got time to get home, showered and dressed before we have to leave.”
“I didn’t know you were married,” Sherry said, stepping behind the rushed player to reach her own locker.
“Six years,” Pete told her, pulling her car keys out of her locker. Slamming the locker door, she snatched her bag off the floor and ran for the door. “Later.”
Sherry laughed watching her go. Her smile slowly faded into a frown. ‘Wonder if I’ll ever someone to run home to like that?’ she asked herself, bending over to untie her shoes.
“Any plans for Sunday?”
Sherry looked up to see Pat standing a few feet away.
“Um,” Sherry straightened back up. “Not that I know of.”
“Home games kinda get me pumped up. I like to go out in the woods afterward to get re-grounded, so to speak.”
Sherry smiled and nodded. She knew she didn’t have to say anything for the coach to know what she meant.
Pat looked toward the door when she heard voices in the corridor. “Stop by my office on your way out, I’ll give you directions.”
Before Kelley and Marcie walked into the locker room, Pat had already disappeared through the side doorway into the office area.
“You wanted to see me, Coach,” Sherry said as she walked into Pat’s office. Kelley was sitting in the next office with the door open.
“Hang on a sec,” Pat told Mac who she was talking to on the phone.”
“Sorry,” Sherry whispered, she hadn’t bothered to see if Pat was busy before she entered her office.
“No problem,” Pat grinned. “Here’s that play I was telling you about,” she pushed a piece of paper across her desk at the player.
“Oh,” Sherry wasn’t expecting that response but considering the coach was on the phone with the team owner and there was an assistant coach sitting not twenty feet away, she thought is was probably a safe way for Pat to handle the situation. “Thanks,” she picked up the paper, shoving it into a pocket in her jeans. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she turned for the door.
“Come ready to play, Sherry,” Pat called after the player before returning to her call.
Pat stood at the front of the locker room watching the players prepare for their first home game. A low roar told her the PA announcer was pumping the fans up for the team’s arrival on the court. She looked at the clock.
“Alright, ladies,” Pat clasped her hands together in front of her chest when the players settled, ready for the coach’s pre-game pep talk. “This is it. Our first home game. Our first victory on the road to that,” she pointed behind her where an oversized photograph of the championship trophy had been taped to the marker board. “That’s our goal. That’s our mission. Tonight, we take the first step in achieving it. The Raiders are a good team,” she said of the Boston team they would be playing. “But you’re better. They’re fast. But you’re faster. They’re hungry. But you’re hungrier. Because you want that,” she pointed again at the picture. “DO YOU WANT IT?”
“Then let’s go out and get it.”
The players jumped to their feet, running for the front of the room. They stopped at the closed door, looking anxiously to their coach for the signal to leave.
“Ready, Coach?” Marcie asked.
Yanking the door open, the players rushed out into the corridor. Before they were halfway to the court, Pat heard the cheers building. The walls of the locker room began to shudder as the arena exploded with foot stomping, screaming fans.
Pat sighed. Running onto the court before a home crowd had always sent a chill up her spine. It was one of the most exhilarating feelings a player could experience and one of the hardest to explain to someone who had never been fortunate enough to experience it.
“Let’s go,” Pat said, leading her assistant coaches out the door.
As soon as the coach was spotted coming out on the floor, the cheers changed to chants of KODAK, KODAK, KODAK. It was the nickname Pat had received after becoming the first Kodak All American from Missoula. She had made the town proud that year and they continued to show her their admiration.
Pat smiled, walking alongside the court to the Cougar bench.
The team of officials walked over to greet the coach.
“Evening, Paula,” Pat shook the hand of the referee, a former player she’d done battle with more than once.
“Good to see you again, Pat. I see you still have the crowd on your side.”
“Anything to help get those close calls,” Pat teased.
“Right,” Paula smirked. “I don’t think you’ve met my colleagues tonight. Sam Bennett,” she said as a dark skinned man stepped forward to shake Pat’s hand. “And Deb Hartley.”
“Nice to meet you,” Pat greeted the other two officials.
“Have a good game,” Paula said as the trio headed over to the Boston bench to repeat the introductions.
Pat turned to her assistants as soon as the officials walked away. “Anything?” she asked, knowing Marcie and Kelley would have spent the past several minutes watching the Raiders pre-game drills.
“Nothing new that I’ve seen,” Kelley said.
“Good. Get the team over here and let’s get this show on the road.”
Pat stood next to the bench, watching Sherry set up a play mid-way through the second half.
The first half of the game having passed relatively quickly when the trio of officials chose to let the teams play without interrupting play too often with foul calls. The buzzer ended the half, sending the Cougars into the locker room with a six point lead.
Sherry moved left, her guard matching her step for step.
Pete faded back, providing the point guard a release pass if she needed it.
Tonie was man-handling her guard under the basket, jamming up the key with their large bodies.
Jade and Val were switching back and forth through the key to confuse the defense even more.
Sherry took a look at Pete but decided she didn’t have a clear passing lane to get the ball to her teammate. She dribbled closer to the key.
Tonie made a quick move to the side, sending her defender, who seconds before had been pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with her, stumbling behind her caught off-guard by the unexpected move.
Seeing Tonie free, Sherry snapped the ball to her.
Tonie caught the pass, turned for the basket and bounced the ball off the backboard for two points.
“Time,” the Raider coach called. Looking up at the scoreboard, he saw that the six point deficit at half time had grown to almost thirty and he had no idea how to stop it from growing larger. His team was being out played and he simply didn’t have the talent to match what they were facing.
“Terry, Dawn, Wendy, Amie, Latesha, you’re in,” Pat told the players on the bench.
“Little early to be taking out the first team, isn’t it?” Marcie asked.
“If they can’t hold the lead, we’ll put the others back in,” Pat answered. “It’s going to be a long season. I need everyone ready and you can’t get that sitting on the bench.”
Marcie nodded. She didn’t necessarily agree but Pat was the coach.
“Okay, let’s just keep doing what we’ve been,” Pat told the five players who would be taking over after the time out. “Nothing fancy. Hold your positions and work together out there. Wendy, Amie, let’s give them something new to think about. Press the inbound pass to mid-court then drop off.”
“Okay, coach,” Wendy said and while Amie nodding her agreement.
“Dawn, they’ve been pretty physical under the basket. If you start to get tired, let me know.” Pat had been rotating Stacy and Tonie most of the game because of the rough play.
Dawn nodded but there was no way she’d ask to be taken out of the game. Not after sitting on the bench until now. She’d heard Marcie’s comment about the ‘first team’ and she was about to prove she belonged on it.
The buzzer sounded and the players ran onto the court.
The teams exchanged baskets for the next several minutes, with the difference in the score changing very little. A media time out brought play to a stop with less than three minutes to play.
“Anybody need a breather?” Pat asked when the team huddled in front of their bench.
“I could use one, Coach,” Amie said. Keeping up a half court press was hard on the player who had seen little playing time before now.
“Sherry, you’re in. Anybody else? Dawn, what about you?”
“I’m fine,” Dawn growled. Why had the coach singled her out?
“Okay, good.” Pat knew her post player had to be tired but if she wanted to stay in, she’d let her. Dawn had actually been playing well and she wanted to see more out of the troublesome player. “Let’s just keep up what we’ve been doing. Wendy, back off the press and let Sherry handle it. She’s got fresher legs.”
Wendy smiled nodding, happy for the relief.
With less than a minute to play, Sherry was dribbling up court looking to set up the final play of the game. Pat signaled for her to run the play they had been practicing the day before and she held up three fingers to pass the information to her teammates. She could see Latesha and Terry struggling to gain position on their defensive players when Wendy started her cut. She snapped the pass to Wendy who dropped the ball off to Terry.
Terry spun around without having a firm grasp on the ball. Her defensive player slapped the ball loose.
Sherry saw the ball bounce free and took off after it, her defender racing to get to it first. Most of the players converged on the ball but Dawn held her position. Sherry reached the ball first, snatching it off the floor. Sensing she didn’t have much time, she scanned the floor for an open teammate. Seeing Dawn standing alone under the basket, she spun to the right and faked a pass to Wendy a few feet away. When the defense went for the fake, she swung the ball behind her back, flipping it to Dawn.
Dawn caught the pass, turned and popped the ball into the basket just as the buzzer sounded the end of the game. Smirking, she trotted over to the bench to accept her accolades for making the game ending basket.
“Great pass,” Pete rushed up to Sherry, hugging the rookie. “I didn’t think you’d be able to get the ball to Dawn.”
“Nice pass, rookie,” Wendy slapped Sherry on the back as she ran past on her way to the cups of water at the end of the bench.
“That’s the way to hustle,” Marcie told Sherry. “Good play.”
“I made the basket,” Dawn grumbled when no one said anything to her.
“Ha,” Latesha laughed, “an easy two foot lay-up. Hope you didn’t strain anything while you were standing there waiting for the ball,” she hadn’t been the only one to notice the rookie had made no effort to retrieve the loose ball.
“Nice game, ladies,” Pat said told her players before leading them off the court to the cheers of the fans.
Sherry glanced again at the directions Pat had written on a sheet of paper. She was to drive up Highway 12, turning off the highway onto a forest service road just before the Lee Creek campground turnoff. She had a pretty good idea where the turnoff was because Lee Creek had been where she’d met Pat the last time they went hiking. She smiled remembering how she’d found Pat sunning herself on top of the huge granite boulder.
Pat’s instructions had been a little vague at the end. Sherry was to drive up the dirt road until she saw Pat’s pickup.
Driving a straight stretch of the mostly winding road, Sherry looked out the side window at a large meadow that bordered the road to her left. She spotted several deer grazing on the meadow grass under the cloudy and grey sky. She was glad she’d added a heavy sweatshirt and pair of nylon pants to her pack before leaving home that morning. Although it wasn’t predicted, she wouldn’t be surprised to see a few snowflakes before the day was out.
Up ahead, Sherry could see the road curved to the left and she slowed in order to safely maneuver around the sharp turn that was immediately followed by three more turns. Coming out of the last turn, Sherry saw the Lolo Hot Springs Resort spread out on both sides of the highway and knew the road she was looking for wasn’t much further ahead. Just past the hot springs, a forest service road took off to the right and the road she was to meet Pat on took off to the left immediately after.
Turning off the highway, Sherry brought the car to almost a complete stop. Pat had warned her of the deep potholes and loose cattle guard at the beginning of the road. She drove slowly over the obstacles then maintained that speed as she continued along the road. The dirt road narrowed in several places and being unsure what was around each bend she decided not to take any chances. Besides, the road paralleled a creek and she was enjoying the scenery. Spotting a moose standing on the opposite side of the creek with its head under the surface of the water, Sherry pulled off on a wide spot to watch the large animal that was no more than twenty feet away.
The moose raised it head, water running off its thick hide back into the creek. As it chewed the tasty treats it found growing in the creek, it studied Sherry with its big, brown eyes. Never having seen a moose this close, Sherry was a little concerned if she was safe from the animal and was relieved when it made no movement in her direction. After several minutes, the moose dropped its head back under water and Sherry left it to its early morning meal.
Sherry didn’t have to drive much further before spotting Pat’s pickup parked off the road. She pulled up behind the vehicle expecting the coach to be close by. When Pat didn’t appear, she looked around but other then her pickup; she saw no evidence of the other woman. She got out of the car.
“Pat?” Sherry called. She heard movement on the opposite side of the road as someone, or something, moved down the overgrown slope. “Pat?” she called again, hoping it was the coach and not another moose.
“I’m here,” Pat called back, stepping out from the cover of the thick undergrowth. “Sorry, I had to… Uh… Well, you know, I had to,” she motioned over her shoulder with her thumb, her cheeks glowing pink.
Sherry smiled, realizing the activity she had caught Pat in the process of completing. “Guess there aren’t too many public restrooms around her, uh?” she laughed.
“Well, actually, that depends on what you would classify as a public restroom,” Pat smiled, walking across the road to where Sherry was waiting. “Hi.”
“Hi, yourself. So what would you call a public restroom?” Sherry asked as Pat walked past the car and her pickup to squat down at the edge of the creek.
Using a handful of the fine water-polished gravel, Pat washed her hands. She stood, shaking the water off her hands. “I like to refer to Montana as the land of a million bathrooms,” she swept a hand around indicating the surrounding trees. “Take your pick if you’re of a mind to.”
“Thanks but I’m fine right now.”
“Afraid to pee in the woods?” Pat lifted her pack out of the back of her pickup then walked up to the passenger side of the car, looking over the top of it at Sherry. The smirk on her face backed up her challenge.
“No, I just don’t have to go right now. When I do, I’ll pick my very own tree.”
“That’s good,” Pat laughed, pulling the car’s back door open and tossing her pack inside. “We’ll leave my truck here. You drive.” When Sherry climbed back into the car, Pat added, “’cause a woman that can’t pee in the woods is no good to me.”
“Is that a fact?” Sherry asked, wondering if Pat realized what she had said.
“That’s a fact,” Pat nodded. “Turn left at the fork up there. At the top of the grade, the road splits again. Take the right fork.”
Sherry grinned as she drove, following Pat’s instructions.
“What’s so funny?” Pat asked, seeing the smirk on Sherry’s face.
“Must be something,” Pat muttered. “You look like you just got some really good news.”
“Well,” Sherry smiled, “I think I just did.”
Sherry drove over the crest of a small grade and turned right as Pat had instructed. As soon as she turned, she saw the road’s access was prevented by a locked gate. “Road’s closed,” she said.
“I know. That’s why we’re here. Park any place.”
She drove right up to the gate to park.
“Drop back a bit,” Pat told her. “Last thing you want to do is block one of these gates. It’s a good way to have your car pushed over the side if the forest service needs to get through while you gone.”
“Oh, good to know.” Sherry let the car roll backwards for several feet until she could pull to extreme side of the road. Before she shut off the engine, she made sure there was plenty of room for vehicles to easily get by.
“This is good,” Pat told her as she got out and retrieved her pack from the back seat.
“So where are we hiking?” Sherry asked, pulling her pack out of the truck.
“Up there,” Pat pointed up the gated-off road.
“Nice wide trail,” Sherry teased.
“Yeah, but some of these are the best kind. Not too likely to meet anybody else, for one thing. Easy hiking, for another. And these old logging roads get you up on top of the ridges where you can see forever.” Pat eased her way around the end of the gate, being careful not to slip down the steep slope beside the road.
“Where’s this one go?” Sherry asked, following Pat’s example.
“Goes in this direction for about a half mile then switches back and goes the opposite direction about the same distance, climbing the whole way. Then it levels out and you’re way up there,” she pointed straight up from where they were walking. “It keeps going for some distance so we can go as far as we want and turn around whenever we’re ready. There’s a nice spot about three miles in to stop for lunch and some real nice views along the way too.”
“Sounds good,” Sherry smiled, falling into step with the coach.
“I can’t believe how far you can see up here,” Sherry was standing on the edge of the road gazing out at ridge after forested ridge that seemed to go on forever.
The women were on their way back down to the car after having walked about four miles up the road and eating lunch next to a small spring.
“Yeah, amazing isn’t it. And not a single man-made thing in sight unless you count the logging roads.”
“It’s really is beautiful,” Sherry turned to face Pat standing a respectable distance away. “I’m glad you brought me here.”
“My pleasure,” Pat smiled. “I’m glad you enjoy it as much as I do. Not too many do,” her voice faded off as she remembered the times she had brought other women to this very spot, one of her favorites. Those dates hadn’t been as appreciative as Sherry. Pat’s head snapped up. ‘Whoa, who said anything about this being a date? But isn’t that what it is. Really, if you look at it honestly, wouldn’t you consider it a date?’ she thought. Afraid Sherry might be able to read her thoughts, she glanced in the player’s direction letting out a sigh of relief when she saw Sherry was engaged digging into her pack for something.
Noticing Pat was preoccupied with her thoughts, Sherry decided it would be a good time to pull the sweatshirt out of the pack and put it on. Standing on top of the ridge, there was little protection from the wind which had been getting noticeably cooler as the day went on.
“Cold?” Pat asked, glad for something else to think about that what she had been.
“A little,” Sherry said, pulling the sweatshirt over her head. “The wind is chilly.”
“Won’t be able to do this much longer,” Pat told her. “At least, not in shorts. There’ll be snow falling up this high in another week or two.”
“Bummer,” Sherry settled her pack on her shoulders. “I like the days we spend together.”
“Just as well,” Pat turned away abruptly and started walking down the road.
Sherry was confused by Pat’s sudden change in demeanor, moments before she was laughing and joking. But without reason she was now serious; her tone solemn and formal. “Pat,” she trotted to catch up with her companion. “Is everything okay?”
Pat stopped, waiting for Sherry to reach her. “Listen with the season underway, I don’t have time to do this anymore. I’ve got to concentrate on the game and so should you.” The words tumbling out more brusquely then she had intended.
“Okay,” Sherry said, her insides shaking with fear at the meaning behind the coach’s words. “Did I do something wrong?” she asked quietly, needing to know why Pat was acting the way she was.
Seeing the look of hurt on Sherry’s face, Pat almost reached out to embrace the woman. Almost.
Instead, she blew out a long, calming breath and started again. “I’m sorry, Sherry. Really, I am. That sounded so…”
“Harsh?” Sherry choked out.
“Yeah. I’m not sure what’s going on between us but I can’t let it go any further. Not now, not under the circumstances we’re under. I’m your coach. I have clauses in my contract against this very thing. I think its best that we just concentrate on basketball the rest of the season. It’s better for both of us” she smiled sadly. “I wish it could be different. I really do, but right now it can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Sherry murmured. She knew Pat was right, it could mean both their jobs if they began a relationship and someone found out. But she also knew she was falling in love with her coach and that wasn’t going to change. “Maybe,” she whispered, her soft words almost lost in the growing wind. “When the season is over…?”
“I can’t think that way, Sherry. I can’t. Please don’t make this any harder than it already is. Please,” Pat desperately needed Sherry to understand.
Sherry felt the tears start to form and she wrapped her arms around herself, wishing that it was Pat’s arms instead of her own.
Seeing how miserable Sherry looked, Pat could hold back no longer. She closed the distance between them, wrapping her arms around Sherry and holding her tight. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured.
Pat sat in her office. Tip-off for the Cougars’ second home game was scheduled to take place in approximately two hours and she was re-reading her notes on their opponents, the Raleigh Patriots. They were a young team with a first year coach leading them and she was hoping to get past them with few, if any, problems before the team faced its first series of games on the road.
“All the players are ready, Coach,” Kelley poked her head through the doorway. “You want to talk to them now or after warm-ups?”
“Have them take their warm-ups then bring them in a few minutes early. We need to go over some changes for tonight,” Pat said without looking up for her work.
“Problems?” Kelley asked.
“Their post player, Gibbs, still bothers me some,” Pat raised her head to look at her assistant coach. “She played in the league a lot of years and I’m concerned Tonie and Dawn may not be able to handle her.”
“Thought that’s why we spent the last two days practicing ways to control her,” Kelley stepped into the office so she could talk more comfortably with her coach. “They looked pretty good in practice. Why are you worried about it now?”
“Practice isn’t a real game situation and I’m concerned, that’s all. Last year, Gibbs dominated play under the basket. I just don’t want her doing it again tonight.”
“She also played for Eugene last year. They came close to making it to the finals. She doesn’t have the same caliber of players around her this year.”
“So you don’t think she’ll cause us problems?” Pat asked.
“I think she’s big and strong and she’ll still dominate her area on the floor. Eventually.”
“She’s playing with a young team and, for a while, she’s going to have her hands full making sure she doesn’t plow over her own teammates as they try to sort out their positions. I doubt she’s going to feel comfortable out there for several games. So to answer your question,” Kelley shrugged. “Yes, I think she’ll cause us some problems but I don’t think she’ll do it tonight. So quit worrying.”
“I’m the head coach,” Pat smiled, thoughtfully. “I get paid to worry. I hope you’re right but don’t forget, Dawn is a young player too.”
“You could sit her out tonight,“ Kelley suggested.
“I could but I don’t want to. She’s been working hard in practice and I don’t want her to use sitting out as an excuse to go back to her old ways.”
“Good question,” Pat scrubbed the side of her head. “Go on, get them out on the floor for warm-ups. Maybe I’ll have an answer by the time you bring them back in.”
Kelley left the office, walking across the outer office and into the locker room. “Let’s go, ladies,” she shouted above the chatter. “Get out on the floor for warm-ups.” She waited until all the players had jogged out of the locker room before following them.
Marcie fell into step beside the other assistant coach. “Coach okay?”
“Seems so. Why?”
“She’s been kind of quiet the past few days.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
“You ask her about it?
“You going to?”
“Yeah, me neither.”
Halftime -- Patriots 47 Cougars 43
“We have to do better on the boards, ladies,” Pat growled. “Gibbs is killing us out there.” Regretfully, she had been right about the Patriots’ low post player who had spent the first half controlling play under the Raleigh basket.
“Sorry, Coach,” Tonie frowned. “I’ve tried everything with her and I can’t move her. She must have spent the entire off season in the weight room.”
“Okay, we’re going to have to try double teaming Gibbs. Give her more to worry about than just one player at a time. Terry, I’m pulling you out. Dawn and Tonie will play low. Val you move out high.” She paused to give the players time to acknowledge their new assignments. “Tonie, Dawn, you need to box her out on rebounds. Make her come over or through you, maybe we can get her in foul trouble.”
Both post players nodded.
“Terry, Ashley, you’ll be rotating in. I want to tire her out, force her to start making mistakes. Sherry, push the ball up court, make Gibbs run to catch up with the play. And keep the ball outside for gosh sakes, forcing it under the basket is doing absolutely nothing for us. You, Val and Pete can all hit from outside, start proving it. Okay, the good news is they’re only shooting thirty seven percent. So if we can stop their second, third and fourth chances, we can turn the score around. We need to concentrate on rebounding. Control the ball. We’re still in this game, ladies, and I, for one, have no intention of losing our first game tonight.” Pat walked over to stand beside the picture of the championship trophy where, next to it, the team picture of Kinsey was now hanging. “Remember what we’re playing for,” Pat looked at her players. “What do we WANT?” Pat shouted.
“CHAMPIONSHIP,” was shouted back.
“Then let’s GO GET IT.”
Second Half -- Patriots 67 Cougars 65
“Time,” Pat yelled at the officials when Dawn was called for a foul. She glanced up at the scoreboard, six minutes ten seconds to play. Pat huddled the players around her. “What’s going on out there?” she looked at Dawn and Tonie. “You’re supposed to box her out, not the other way around.”
“I’m trying,” Dawn snapped.
“Try harder,” Pat glared at the player. Dawn had been trying but she didn’t need the attitude right now. “Sherry, you need to come in close when they take a shot,” she normally had Sherry hang back around the top of the key in order to be in position to start fast breaks if the ball should take a long bounce off the rim. “Try to jam things up underneath.”
Sherry nodded, using a towel to wipe the sweat off her face.
“Okay, just keep up the pressure,” Pat encouraged her players. “We should have the lead by the next time out.”
As the players trotted back out onto the court, Marcie stepped up beside Pat.
“That’s four on Dawn, shouldn’t you take her out for a while?”
Pat frowned. Players were allowed six fouls but a lot could happen in six minutes. Did she want to chance Dawn fouling out? She looked to her bench.
Terry, Ashley, and Stacy were sitting there waiting to be sent back into the game whenever their coach needed them.
“Let’s leave her in for now,” Pat said as play resumed on the floor.
Patriots 79 Cougars 80 -- twenty-six seconds remaining on the game clock
Sherry kept close watch on the player she was guarding as the Patriots worked the ball around the three point circle. The Raleigh players were passing the ball almost as soon as it reached their hands, attempting to find a teammate with an open shot.
The seconds were ticking down.
Dawn was guarding Gibbs, trying to keep her body between the post player and the ball.
Gibbs planted her legs, pressing her body against Dawn’s side. When she felt Dawn press back, she spun away leaving Dawn stumbling backwards as she was caught unbalanced by the quick move.
Seeing Gibbs break free and in the perfect position for an easy basket, a Raleigh player rifled the ball in her direction.
Sherry saw Dawn fall out of position. Leaving her player unguarded, she ran to help out.
Reaching for the pass, Gibbs glanced over her shoulder to make sure Dawn isn’t near.
Dawn, regaining her footing, scrambled to retake her position.
Gibbs caught the ball, turning to the basket.
Dawn pulled up when she saw any attempt to block the post player’s shot would probably result in a foul call and give Gibbs two free shots.
The post player raised her arms to take the uncontested shot, her hands dropping slightly behind her head as she took aim.
Every player on the Cougar bench was standing, screaming at Dawn to make some attempt at stopping the shot.
Sherry, running at an angle to ensure she did not touch Gibbs, left her feet. Her body stretching as she reached her arm as far out to the side as it would go. Her fingers found the ball an instant before it left the post players hand.
The game ending buzzer sounded as the ball, deflected just enough by Sherry’s fingertips, flew wide bouncing off the backboard a foot to the side of the rim.
The Cougars were still celebrating when Pat stood at the front of the locker room. “Good game, ladies,” she shouted to get their attention. Smiling, she waited for the players to settle down so she could talk at a more reasonable level. “It was close but we won and that is all I care about right now.”
“You got that right, Coach,” Val called out and several players laughed.
“Of course, come practice tomorrow I might feel different,” Pat smirked to a chorus of groans.
“Okay, I’m not going to stand up here and talk your ears off tonight. But I do have a couple of comments. We leave on a three game road trip on Friday and the teams we’ll be playing are a lot tougher than what you faced tonight. So think about that. We can’t let one player dominant us again. We have to be smarter than our opponents. Smarter, faster, tougher. Practice at eight tomorrow so go home and get some rest. The time for celebrating is after we’ve won that,” she pointed at the picture of the trophy. “Not now.
The locker room was much quieter when Pat began to walk away than it had been just moments before as the players took to heart their coach’s comment.
Sherry was sitting near the door that led to Pat’s office. It hadn’t been intentional but she was glad she was there when the coach walked toward her. The women had not spoken outside of basketball since their hike the weekend before. She understood Pat’s dilemma but it was hard to stop her heart from responding to the coach’s nearness.
“Nice play, Sherry,” Pat smiled as she approached. “You sure saved our butts out there.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Sherry murmured when Pat walked past, closing the door behind her as soon as she entered the offices. She sat aimlessly for a few moments before standing to walk to her locker. She had just pulled the locker door open when it was ripped out of her hand and slammed shut.
“You enjoy making a fool of me, rookie,” Dawn snarled, pressing her body against Sherry’s and forcing her hard against the row of lockers.
“Get off me,” Sherry struggled to free herself from the larger player.
“Dawn, back off,” Pete had heard the commotion and came around the end of the lockers to investigate. “Damn it, Dawn,” she grabbed the player’s arm, yanking her back. “Get off her.”
“That’s twice, rookie,” Dawn poked a finger into Sherry’s shoulder. “Don’t make it three.”
“What’s the problem?” Marcie asked, hurrying to stand between Pete and Dawn.
“Nothing,” Dawn snapped, spinning around. She stormed off to her own locker located at the end of the row.
“Sherry?” Marcie asked. “What’s going on between you two?”
“Got me,” Sherry shrugged. “She’s the one with the problem.” ‘And I’m getting pretty tired of being on the receiving end of it,’ she thought.
“You okay?” Pete asked when Marcie went to talk to Dawn, keeping one eye on their heated discussion.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Sherry said, bending down to pull her bag out off the bottom of her locker.
“You want to grab some dinner?” Pete thought the tone of Sherry’s voice told a different story.
“Thanks,” Sherry smiled at the veteran player. “But I’m beat. I just want to go home, take a hot shower and go to bed. Eight o’clock is going to come awfully early tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Sherry spun the lock dial and turned to leave.
Pete watched her walk away. “Great game tonight, rookie,” she called after Sherry then turned to walk down to Dawn who was now sitting alone.
“Get away from me,” Dawn growled.
“Listen, you idiot,” Pete bent down, placing her hands on the chair aims, her face inches from Dawn’s. “You better start getting some facts through that thick skull of yours. First, you’re more ego than player right now and I’m getting pretty sick and tired of it. Second, if you don’t like looking like a fool on the court then quit playing like one. And third, if you ever call her rookie again, I’ll reach down your throat and pull your shorts up so tight you’ll walk funny the rest of the season.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Dawn challenged the other player.
“If she don’t, I sure as hell will,” Terry slapped a hand down on Dawn’s shoulder, squeezing tight. She and several other players had moved close to hear Pete’s comments.
“Ow,” Dawn reached up, trying to break Terry’s grip but unable to do so. “Get away from me.”
Pete stood back up, motioning with her head for Terry to release the rookie. “Come on, Terr,” she said, pulling her teammate away. “She’s not worth you getting into trouble with Coach.”
“You got that right,” Terry chuckled, allowing herself to be led away.
Dawn sat and stewed for several minutes, trying to figure out a way to get back at the players who had shown her up.
“Oh, there you are,” Mandy called out when she spotted Dawn. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her tone not at all friendly. “You said you’d take me to dinner after the game and I’ve been sitting out in my car waiting.”
“I need to shower,” Dawn told her lover.
“Oh,” Mandy’s mood lightened. “Then let’s skip dinner and just go right home,” she purred, running her hand down Dawn’s back. “You know how much I love to wash your back when you’re all sweaty,” she whispered into the player’s ear.
“Let’s go,” Dawn stood up. Grabbing Mandy’s hand, she dragged the woman out of the locker room, not even bothering to change out of her uniform.
Continued in Part 9
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