Table of ContentsTitle PageDedicationCopyright Page Chapter 1 - The Pizza DivisionChapter 2 - LeechesChapter 3 - ToastedChapter 4 - Three on ThreeChapter 5 - Opening DayChapter 6 - The CountChapter 7 - Below minimumChapter 8 - ShowdownChapter 9 - Half Sprite, Half OrangeChapter 10 - Corner KicksChapter 11 - The PlayoffsChapter 12 - Pineapple SodaChapter 13 - Overtime? Teaser chapterTAKING CONTROL OF THE GAME...
The Grotto players had come close to scoring, but they’d also made a key mistake. Every blue shirt except the goalie and one defender was on this end of the field. Calvin booted the ball toward Angel near the sideline, then went full speed up the field. Angel had lots of room and dribbled past Coach Diaz, across the center line, and well into the Grotto side. He passed to Zero, who passed to Orlando, who passed over to Calvin at the top of the penalty area.It was just Calvin and the goalie now, and Calvin was up to the task. He dribbled straight into the goal box, made a quick feint to his left, then drove the ball hard into the net. Little Italy had the lead.“Defense now!” Calvin shouted as he ran back into position.Little Italy tightened its zone, hustled for every loose ball, and held its ground. When the final whistle blew, Calvin dropped to his knees and raised his fists.“You’re the man!” shouted Zero, putting his hands on Calvin’s shoulders and squeezing.Calvin was exhausted but thrilled. He yanked off his T-shirt and wiped his face and shoulders, then walked proudly off the field.For Ryan and Heather
PUFFIN BOOKSPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Young Readers Group,345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario,Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, EnglandPenguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland(a division of Penguin Books Ltd)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,New Delhi - 110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), Cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310,New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)Penguin Books (South Africa)(Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank,Johannesburg 2196, South Africa Registered Offices: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England First published in the United States of America by Viking, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2005 Published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2005 Copyright © Rich Wallace, 2005All rights reserved LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE eISBN : 978-1-101-17502-6 Set in Caslon 224 Book The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
http://us.penguingroup.comALSO BY RICH WALLACE
Restless: A Ghost’s StoryLosing Is Not an OptionPlaying Without the BallShots on GoalWrestling Sturbridge Winning Season Series
The Roar of the CrowdTechnical FoulFast CompanyDouble FakeEmergency QuarterbackSouthpawDunk Under PressureTakedown1The Pizza DivisionC
alvin Tait stepped outside, walked across the short front lawn, and immediately started sweating.Another brutal day,he thought.Must be ninety already.Gazing down the hill and way across the Hudson River, he could see the New York City skyline, shining in the sun but dimmed by the early summer haze. He made his way up the walk of the neighboring house and rapped on the door.Zero answered within seconds, yanking the door open. “Yo,” he said.Calvin pushed past Zero into the house. “You got the air on?”“Nah. My dad said not to.”“Not until it breaks a hundred, huh?”“Something like that,” Zero said. “Anyway, we’re going out, right?”“Yeah. We need to get downtown and check out the rosters. Practice startstonight,man. I can’t wait.”“I just gotta get some socks. Come on.”Calvin followed Zero up the stairs, winding past an overflowing laundry basket, a stack of news magazines, Zero’s black leather sneakers, and a fat orange cat that lifted its tail and mewed.Zero yanked open a drawer in his small wooden dresser and grabbed an armload of socks. “Need to find a matching pair,” he said, dumping the socks onto the bed.“They’reallwhite,” Calvin said. “They’re bleached whiter than you are.”“Yeah, but they’re different.” Zero picked up three of the socks. “This one’s got a yellow stripe along the top edge. This other one’s got thin little ribs. This one has thicker ribs and a gray heel.”“You gotta be kidding me.”“Just give me a second.” Zero kept pawing through the pile of socks until he found a pair.Calvin rolled his eyes. “You could try sorting them outbeforeyou dump ’em in the drawer.”Zero frowned but gave it some thought. “That sounds a little compulsive, don’t you think?”They went downstairs and Calvin took a seat at the dining-room table. Zero put on his socks, then went back up the stairs to get his sneakers. Calvin reached across and examined the large plastic chicken that sat in the place of honor at the center of the table.“Don’t mess with that,” Zero said, running down the stairs.“Just looking.”“That thing’s fifty years old, at least. My great-grandmother brought it over when she immigrated from Brooklyn.”“It’s an imitation chicken,” Calvin said.“It’s anheirloom,dude.”“It’s plastic.”“Yeah. It’ll last forever.”Calvin stared at the chicken. Parts of the brown plastic were painted, so the head was red, the tail feathers were black, and the feet were yellow. Some of the paint was peeling away.“It’s old. I don’t doubt that,” Calvin said.“It’s valuable,” Zero said. “Believe me.”Zero finished tying his shoes. “So what are we doing again?” he asked.“We need to get to the Y and check out the teams.”They had signed up for the YMCA’s summer soccer league for eleven- and twelve-year-olds. Both of them had a lot of sports experience—football, basketball, baseball, track. Neither had played much soccer before, but the summer league was a big deal in this town. Coaches from the Hudson City Soccer Club and the St. Joseph’s parish squad watched the league closely to recruit new talent for their fall squads.“Hope we get on the same team,” Calvin said.“We should. My mom told them we had to be together for carpooling to practices and games.”Calvin laughed. “Right. The next time we get a ride anywhere will be the first.”They walked downtown past blocks of tightly packed houses. At the corner of Fifth Street they turned onto the Boulevard and stopped to look in Amazing Ray’s 99-Cent Store, the windows stacked with rolls of paper towels and laundry detergent and cases of Goya pineapple drink.The YMCA was an old brick building on the Boulevard near St. Joseph’s Church. It had no pool, but the small gymnasium got plenty of use—basketball, floor hockey, gymnastics.“Hello, boys,” said the woman at the front desk.“Hi,” said Calvin. “Have they posted the teams for the soccer league yet?”“Right in the gym.”“Thanks.”They entered the gym and started scanning the rosters on the bulletin board.“Check it out,” Zero said, pointing to one of the lists. “We’re in the pizza division.”Calvin saw their names under Little Italy, the sponsoring business. There were nine or ten players listed for each team. Because the rec field was small, games in this league were played with just seven players from each team on the field.LITTLE ITALY
Victor AlvarezJulie CarrascoOrlando GreenPeter LeungAngel MedinaMary PinedaZach “Zero” RollisonCalvin TaitBriana Torres“Little Italy?” Calvin said. “Looks more like Little Cuba; you’re the only white kid on the team. Anyway, I heard the winner of the pizza division has won the league like four out of the past five years.” He studied the lists again.EASTERN DIVISION
Villa RomaLuigi’sThe GrottoLittle ItalyWESTERN DIVISION
Hudson City FloristBug Busters ExterminationHector’s GarageBauer ElectricEach team would play the others in its division twice and the teams in the opposite division once, for a total of ten games. The first two in each division would make the playoffs.“Do we get free pizza after the games?” Zero asked.“Doubt it,” Calvin said. “Maybe if we win the championship.”“Notif,” Zero said. “You meanwhenwe win it. Think positive, man. Like me.”They left the Y and started walking along the Boulevard. It was eleven A.M. in the middle of June. There’d be a practice session tonight at six thirty. Until then, they had nothing really to do.2LeechesG
etting to Hamilton Park from the Hudson City business district requires a steep downhill walk along a rutted old sidewalk. Down here by the waterfront, you cross Palisades Avenue and the park stretches out in front of you for about a hundred yards to the Hudson River and about five hundred yards along it. Directly across in Manhattan are the piers with the giant container ships.Calvin had a twenty-ounce bottle of lemon-flavored water and had tied his white T-shirt around his waist. Streams of sweat were running from his hair down his dark brown face. He could taste it at the corners of his mouth. “Let’s get to the river,” he said to Zero. “I’m going in. I don’t care who arrests me.”“Nobody’s gonna arrest us,” Zero said. “Just might get a skin disease from the water.”“I got tough skin.”They crossed the jogging/biking/Rollerblading path that circled the park and stepped onto the large, flat, grassy area in the middle. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog, and a few other people in the park were sitting on benches or sprawled out under the maple trees, hoping to catch a breeze from the water.But what caught Calvin’s eye was a group of six teenagers on the far side of the park, energetically kicking a soccer ball in a three-on-three match and shouting in Spanish. The player with the ball was laughing as two frustrated opponents tried to steal it. He bobbed around them and kept the ball amazingly close to his feet, starting and stopping and then bursting between them and passing to a wide-open teammate.“Cool,” Calvin said.Zero shook his head and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Hot.”Calvin rolled his eyes. “I mean hismoves.That’s good soccer.”Page 2
The boys reached the railing above the river. The tide was low, so there was a few feet of muddy bank between the river and the retaining wall. They could easily hop over the fence and wade.Calvin tossed his shirt and the water bottle onto the grass and said, “Let’s go.” In one fluid motion he was over the fence, down the wall, and onto the bank.Zero quickly followed. “Don’t take your shoes off,” he said.“What am I, stupid?” Calvin walked knee-deep into the water. He reached down and cupped some into his hands, soaking his skinny chest and shoulders. “Feels good,” he said.“Things better cool off before practice tonight,” Zero said.“Maybe a degree or two.”“Never thought I’d be playing soccer.”“You know what my dad wanted me to do instead?” Calvin asked. “Takegolflessons. Golf! He took me to one of those pitch-and-putt courses out by Livingston a couple of weeks ago. Par fifty-four. It took me ahundredand fifty-four.”“Not your sport, huh?”“Maybe later in life. Like retirement age.”A wadded-up piece of paper hit Calvin in the shoulder and he quickly turned around. Twin black-haired girls his age were standing on the path, leaning over the railing and grinning. Jessie and Danielle Rosado. Both girls were lean and witty. Calvin knew them well.Calvin scooped up the paper and hurled it back. “Don’t pollute, ladies,” he said.“Heard you boys are playing soccer,” said Jessie, the twin with wild braids.“You heard right,” said Calvin.“What team you on?” asked Danielle, who’d had her hair straightened.“Little Italy,” said Zero. “You playing?”“Of course,” said Jessie. “Bauer Electric. We got second in the whole league last year and we have seven players back. This year we’re gonna win it.”“We’ll see about that,” said Calvin.“We’re theelectricteam,” said Danielle. “We’ll shock you.”“We’ll light you up,” added Jessie, laughing.“Oh yeah?” said Zero. “Well, we’ll... we’ll pizza you.”“Good one, Z,” said Calvin.The girls looked at each other and rolled their eyes. They started walking away. Jessie looked back and said to Calvin, “Watch out for leeches.”“There ain’t no leeches in here,” Calvin said, but he pulled one leg from the water and looked at it. “The mercury kills ’em.”“There’s leeches everywhere,” said Jessie. “Beware.”Zero stepped into the water, then turned and watched the twins walk away. “There’s girls in this league?” he said to Calvin.“Didn’t you look at the rosters? We got three girls on our own team.”“Oh, yeah.” Zero nodded his head and a slow smile started to creep across his face. “Guess that’s not so bad,” he said.Calvin grinned. “Not so bad,” he said, pointing toward the Rosados, who were fifty yards away by now. “Not so bad at all.”3ToastedT
he YMCA league started with a full-league clinic, where the basics of passing, dribbling, shooting, goaltending, and defense were taught. The players broke into several groups for the drills.Calvin was a natural athlete, quickly picking up any game he tried. But within minutes of the start of the clinic he realized that he had some work to do if he was going to excel in this league. He could handle the ball all right, but he was continually faked out by more experienced players.Here was Jessie Rosado during a one-on-one drill, stepping left then quickly going right, guiding the ball with the outside of her foot as Calvin lunged in the wrong direction.Then came Johnny Rodriguez, deftly stepping over the ball, tapping it with his heel, and leaving Calvin flat-footed as he darted toward the goal.“Watch the ball, Calvin, not the player,” said Luis Diaz, the teenager whose rapid footwork Calvin had admired in the park that afternoon. Luis was a key player on Hudson City’s high-school team and one of the coaches in this summer league. “They can make all the dodges and jukes they want, but if you keep your eyes on the ball, they won’t fake you out. You’ll catch on. You’ve got the skills.”Calvin nodded. This wouldn’t be easy, but he’d get it.He did better with dribbling—his excellent speed and coordination were a big plus there. But he needed to work on that as well. “Don’t just kick it and chase it,” said coach Irvin Cornell, who’d played soccer at Essex Community College. “Touch the ball with every step when you dribble.”Calvin found Zero after the clinic, sitting on the bottom row of the metal bleachers. “That was harder than I expected,” he said, wiping his brow with his hand. “There are somegoodplayers here.”“Did you play goalie at all?” Zero asked. His cheeks were red from exertion.“Nope. We didn’t get to that.”“I was pretty good at it.”Calvin sat down and took off his cleats. He put on his sneakers and a dry T-shirt. “Gotta get shin guards,” he said.“I know.”The Rosado twins had walked over. “Hey, Calvin,” said Jessie.“What’s up?”“I smoked you, dude.” She was smiling.Calvin tried to look unimpressed. “Once.”“It’s that electricity we told you about.”Zero elbowed Calvin and raised his eyebrows.Jessie went through the motions of the fake, leaning to her left then darting sideways to her right. “One little move and he was toast,” she said.“The truth?” asked Zero.Calvin shrugged and gave an embarrassed grin. “Guess so.”“Well, there’s our ride,” said Jessie, pointing toward a station wagon that was pulling into the parking lot. She winked at Calvin. “Hope I don’t give you nightmares. See you next time.”Danielle waved to the boys with her fingers and followed Jessie across the field.Calvin stared after them, resting his chin on his fist. Then he caught Zero’s eye and gently shook his head a few times, breaking into a smile. “I’m starving,” he said. “You got money?”“Yeah. You?”“Yeah. Not a lot.”“Enough?”“Yeah. Enough for something. Let’s go.”Calvin gathered up his cleats, the soaking-wet T-shirt, and a plastic gallon jug that he’d filled with water. He’d finished half of it during breaks. “Shoulda brought a gym bag,” he said.“Where we going?”“The market, I guess.”They headed toward the small grocery store at the corner of Ninth and the Boulevard. Hudson City’s main street was busy with traffic, and many of the shops and small restaurants were open late on summer evenings. Music was coming from many of the stores, which occupied the bottom floors of the two- and three-story buildings.It was about eight twenty when the boys reached the grocery.“What do we want?” Zero asked.Calvin squinted and looked around the store, nodding thoughtfully. “I’m narrowing it down,” he said. “Something substantial... maybe from the deli.”They headed down the canned-goods and juice aisle and made a left toward the deli counter. There were no other customers so they didn’t bother taking a number.“Help you?” asked the bored teenage boy behind the counter.“In due time,” said Calvin, peering into the glass case at the cold cuts and tubs of salads. “The fruit salad looks good. Roast beef... salami.” He tapped on the glass. “That potato salad fresh?” he asked.“Wouldn’t be in there if it wasn’t,” the teenager said flatly.“Let’s have half a pound of that with two forks,” Calvin said.The guy dished up the salad and weighed it. “Just over half,” he said.“That’ll do us,” Calvin said. He looked at Zero. “What else?”“I was thinking pretzels.”“Excellent choice. And orange juice?”“Absolutely,” Zero said. “Potato salad, pretzels, and orange juice. What could be better?”“The only thing that could make it better is to eat it all at a bus stop,” Calvin said. “Boulevard and Eleventh is my favorite bench. You?”“Perfect atmosphere,” Zero replied. “Let’s do it.”4Three on ThreeT
wo nights later, Coach Luis Diaz blew his whistle sharply and called his team over. They each had a ball and had been working on controlling it, dribbling in and out of a series of cones.“That’s enough of a warm-up,” he said. “Drills are fine, but you learn this game byplayingit.”Calvin and the others kneeled on the grass and looked up at the coach. He was short and sturdy, with the beginnings of a summer mustache sprouting above his lip. He would be captain of the Hudson City High School team this fall.“How many of you have actually played this game?” he asked. “On a real team, I mean.”Four or five players raised their hands. Zero asked, “Does gym count?”The coach smiled and shrugged. “Sort of.” He made two quick cutting motions with his hand, dividing the group into three sets of three. “You three stand up,” he said, indicating Calvin, Mary Pineda, and Peter Leung. “You’re a team.”“Just three of us?” Calvin asked.“Three is the perfect unit. You’ll see.”Coach had set up two portable goals, one in front of a full-sized goal and the other at midfield. “Short field. No goalies,” he said. “But no long shots, either. I want to see footwork and passing. Any shot longer than fifteen yards doesn’t count.”Coach sent Zero, Julie Carrasco, and Orlando Green onto the field for the game. “The game goes for one goal,” Coach said. “Losing team steps off and the third team comes on. We’ll switch the teammates around after a while.”He blew his whistle and Calvin took possession of the ball, kicking it ahead and chasing it down. The three opponents converged on him, and Calvin pivoted, kicking the ball to the side and throwing out an elbow.Julie took possession of the ball and booted it up the field, where Peter caught up to it and sent it flying in the other direction.Now it was simply a race to the ball, and Calvin got there first. With the three opponents in pursuit, Calvin quickly shot the ball toward the goal. It missed by about four feet and spun out of bounds.Coach Diaz stood with his arms folded and his mouth tight. He stepped over to the three players who were waiting to get in and started talking quietly to them.On the field, Calvin chased down a long boot from Orlando and came racing back up the field. He dodged past Zero, then managed to spin between Julie and Orlando, finding himself right in front of a wide-open goal. He easily kicked the ball into the net and threw his fists into the air.He trotted back to his team’s end of the field, laughing.“Okay,” Coach said. “Next team.”Angel Medina, Briana Torres, and Victor Alvarez trotted out. All three were a year younger than Calvin.“We’ll eat these guys up,” Calvin said to Mary.Angel came up the field with the ball, and Calvin and his teammates ran toward him. As they approached, Angel turned and sent the ball back to Briana, who was about fifteen feet to the side and behind him.“Charge!” yelled Calvin with a broad grin, leading his two teammates toward the ball.But Briana was quick, barely receiving the ball before she passed it over to Victor. By the time Calvin had turned and headed toward Victor, the ball was already moving back to Angel, who easily took it thirty yards to the goal and fired it in.Coach blew his whistle. “Calvin,” he said with a broad smile. “Tell me what just happened.”“That kid scored.”Coach laughed. “How come?”“Because he got lucky?”“You tell me. How lucky does he have to be when nobody’s guarding him?”Calvin shrugged. “I got through three of them when I scored.”“It wasn’t easy though, was it?”“Guess not.”“Look,” Coach said. “Remember when I said three was the perfect unit? Think about it. While you were fighting to get through three defenders, your two teammates were as wide open as they could be. You had your head down, thinking only about dribbling and shooting. The way to score goals is topass,my man.”Calvin nodded.“We need to work hard, but we need to work smart. That’s all I told these guys,” he said, sweeping his hand toward Angel and his two teammates. “When you three went racing after the ball together, all they had to do was form a triangle and make a few simple passes to pick you apart.”“I get it,” Calvin said.“Okay, let’s try it some more. Everybody listen: When a player has the ball in a three-on-three game, he should always have two options for passing. Two teammates, two options. Think of a triangle shape.”Coach patiently corrected mistakes every few minutes after that, explaining how a player could have moved into position for a pass, or how a defender could avoid getting faked out. But mostly he let them play, and gradually they began to catch on.“We’ll be pretty good,” Coach said after they’d run some laps at the end. “We’ve got talent; we just have to use our brains.”Calvin and Zero stopped at Little Italy for a slice of pizza on the way home. On the wall beside the counter were several team pictures from previous Little Italy teams, and a plaque from a few years before when the team had won the YMCA title.“We’ll be up there soon,” Calvin said, pointing to the pictures as they were served their slices.“Are you on our team?” said the man behind the counter.“Yeah,” Zero said. “Just finished practice a few minutes ago.”“Ernie Salinardi,” the man said, sticking out his hand for them to shake. “I own this place.”Calvin and Zero shook his hand and gave their names.Page 3
“It’s our first soccer season,” Calvin said.“Great. The team’s looking good, I hope?”“Realgood,” Calvin said. Then he leaned his head to one side and thought for a second. “Wewillbe, anyway. Still got a lot to learn.”“Learn quick,” Ernie said, winking. “Wins are good for business.”“We’ll try,” Zero said, nodding solemnly.“I’m just kidding.” Ernie wiped the counter with a cloth. “Have fun and learn the game. There’s no better game on earth.”“It’s a deal,” Calvin said.“I only ask one thing,” Ernie said, breaking into a grin. “Don’t lose to Luigi’s. That’s my cousin’s place. We’ll have a dinner wagered on that game, believe me.”5Opening DayC
oach Diaz carried a box of orange T-shirts across the rec field. He tossed Calvin a shirt with the YMCA logo and LITTLE ITALY in blue block letters. Calvin scrambled out of his tank top and pulled the new shirt over his head. Number 9.“First game,” Coach Diaz said, gathering the team around him. “Two twenty-four minute halves. We’ll keep it simple.” He held up a clipboard with a diagram of a soccer field drawn on it. “Let’s go over the positions again.”“Two wings,” he said, circling the LW and RW he’d written on the diagram. “Front line, left and right. You’re mostly on offense, but in a seven-on-seven game like this one, you’ll need to hustle back on defense, too. Everybody needs to float—don’t be a mile away from the ball. But don’t crowd up, either. That’s what kills an offense.”Coach circled the letter C between the wings. “The center forward. Key guy. Get in position to score.”Calvin could already feel his T-shirt sticking to his back. It was early evening, but the weather remained hot and humid. It hadn’t rained in weeks.Coach pointed to the two MIDs he had written below the front line. “Midfielders. Support the offense; remember that triangle pattern we tried. And work your butts off on defense. Keep the ball away from our goal.“Sweeper. You play behind the midfielders but workwiththem.“Goalie. Stop the shots. When you have the ball, get it up the field to a teammate. Any questions?”Calvin put up his hand. “What positions are we playing?”“I’ll get to that. One rule. One major, essential, critical rule: Pass the ball.Passit. Then move into position for a return pass. That’s how you move the soccer ball. Dribble if you have space, but don’t ever just put your head down and chase it.”Coach looked at his watch. “We’ve got ten minutes. Grab a ball and dribble two laps around the field, then get back here and I’ll give you your positions. Let’s hustle.”Calvin picked a ball out of the large mesh bag and dropped it at his feet. Several of his teammates were already dribbling along the sideline, but Calvin was the fastest player on the team. He zipped around the corner flag and behind the goal, working the ball with both feet and keeping it as close as he could. It got away from him as he dribbled around the corner, but he recovered it and sprinted up the sideline, passing Orlando, a taller black kid who was fast, but was struggling with the ball. Calvin smiled when he saw the number 0 on the back of the only player still running ahead of him.“Save some energy,” Zero said as Calvin flew past.“I got plenty,” Calvin replied.The Grotto players were outfitted in dark blue T-shirts. They were in pairs or groups of three, passing the balls back and forth near the middle of the field. It looked as if they had some good players. Calvin still wasn’t sure about his own team. Little Italy had a lot of eleven-year-olds, and a few of them weren’t very athletic.Coach put Calvin at sweeper for the first half, with Zero at goalie.“We may get shell-shocked back here,” Calvin said softly as they jogged onto the field. He was looking toward Little Italy’s front line—Victor Alvarez, Peter Leung, and Briana Torres. None of the three was taller than five feet.“That’s what we’re here for,” Zero said. “Look—keep it close this half, then we’ll pound ’em later when we move up on offense.”Calvin’s concerns proved to be valid. The Little Italy front-line players seemed confused and hurried, swiping at the ball as soon as it came by, booting it up the field but rarely toward a teammate.The Grotto had some quick players who put the pressure on and kept it up. Calvin twice cleared the ball away from the front of the goal, and Zero made a couple of saves. But the Grotto’s tall, red-haired striker eventually took a nice centering pass from the wing, gave a fake and dribbled around Orlando, then fired the ball into the net as Zero dove in vain.Coach Diaz called the players over before they lined up for the kickoff.“We have to establish some offense,” he said. “We can’t just kick it hard every time the ball comes to us. Make some goodshortpasses—just try to get into the rhythm of the game. You can passbackwards,you know.“Midfielders, call for the ball. That’s what I mean by support—let them know where you are. You guys aren’t talking at all.”Coach gave a big smile as he sent them onto the field. “I like the effort,” he said. “But let’s use our brains, too.”Peter took the kickoff and made a short pass toward Briana, who trapped the ball, pivoted, and passed back to midfielder Angel Medina. Angel was short and wiry, with olive skin and close-cropped hair. He dribbled a few steps, then made another short pass, this one about ten yards across the field to Mary.“Support!” yelled Calvin, who had moved up the field. Mary made a nice grass-cutting pass back to him, and Calvin fielded it and surveyed the situation.Victor, Mary, and Peter were clumped up about ten yards in front of Calvin. “Spread out!” he said firmly, darting to his right. He had room to dribble, but a couple of Grotto players were closing in.Calvin saw Angel ahead of him near the sideline and made a crisp pass in his direction. Angel moved toward the ball and trapped it, then put on a burst of speed. Coach Diaz clapped his hands as Angel ran by. “That’s the way,” he called. “Short passes to move the ball!”Little Italy didn’t come close to scoring the rest of the half, but the competition seemed much more balanced. The Grotto made a couple of runs at the goal, but the defense closed ranks, and Zero made two more saves. At halftime, the score was still only 1-0.“Much better,” Coach said as the players sucked on orange slices and swigged water near the wooden bench. “Keep passing. Keep hustling. We’ll put more speed up front this half.”Zero moved up to wing and Calvin to midfield. Coach grabbed the sleeve of Calvin’s T-shirt and took him aside as the others ran onto the field. “Be aggressive,” he said. “You’ve got the speed to play the whole field. You need to take control of the game.”Calvin nodded. He appreciated the implication that he could play a less rigid game.Little Italy came out smoking in the second half. With Julie Carrasco, Zero, and Orlando up front and Calvin controlling the midfield, most of the early action was in the Grotto’s defensive end.The ball went out of bounds near the corner, and Orlando scooped it up for a throw-in. His throw reached Zero’s feet, and Zero had room to dribble toward the goal. As the defense closed in, Zero chipped the ball into the air toward the goal box. Calvin got there first, caught the ball softly on his thigh, and let it drop. He had a clear shot at the net, but the goalie was darting over to that side.Calvin feinted to his right, then passed the ball across the field, parallel to the goal line and zipping across the grass. Julie was there and the net was wide open. She pounded it home. The game was tied!Calvin raised his fist and punched at the air, shouting, “Yeah!”Julie ran over and Calvin caught her in a bear hug. Zero patted her shoulder and they ran toward the center of the field.Calvin looked toward the sideline. Coach tapped the side of his head. “Smart play!” he shouted.Past the coach and behind the bench, Calvin caught sight of the Rosado sisters, decked out in their black team T-shirts and passing a ball around. Calvin knew they had the second game of the evening, against Hudson City Florist.“Let’s get another one!” Zero said, dropping back a bit for the kickoff. About seven minutes remained in the game. Plenty of time.Calvin heard a low rumble of thunder in the distance, but the sky was mostly clear. He was sweating heavily, but his energy level was high. He wanted to win this one badly.The ball came to him a few moments later, and he angled upfield toward the sideline. He approached the center line but suddenly he was trapped—two defenders in front of him and one at his side, directly between him and Angel.Peter Leung was playing sweeper, but he was way back near the goal. Calvin sent a long pass toward him, but he didn’t get much pace on the ball. Bad move.A Grotto player raced toward the ball and got there well ahead of Peter, who was cutting over as quickly as he could. That left the middle of the field open, and that red-haired Grotto player was streaking in by himself. The ball had been passed ahead of him and he was chasing it.Calvin sprinted down the field and shouted to Peter. “Take the middle! I’ve got your back.”The redhead had the ball now and there was open space between him and the goal. Mary Pineda, short but limber, was crouched in front of the Little Italy net. She hadn’t been tested in the entire second half.Peter raced toward the ball and offered just enough resistance to take away a pure, dead-on shot. So when the shot came, it was from a slight angle, a low line drive that streaked toward the corner of the net. Mary lunged and got a hand on it. The ball popped into the air but continued toward the goal.Calvin had reached the goal box and threw himself toward the ball. He nudged it with his forehead and it squirted out of the box, bouncing on the grass and rolling toward the corner.A Grotto player chased it down and chipped it back toward the goal. Calvin intercepted it and looked up the field. Orange and blue shirts were everywhere.The Grotto players had come close to scoring, but they’d also made a key mistake. Every blue shirt except the goalie and one defender was on this end of the field. Calvin booted the ball toward Angel near the sideline, then went full speed up the field. Angel had lots of room and dribbled past Coach Diaz, across the center line, and well into the Grotto side. He passed to Zero, who passed to Orlando, who passed over to Calvin at the top of the penalty area.It was just Calvin and the goalie now, and Calvin was up to the task. He dribbled straight into the goal box, made a quick feint to his left, then drove the ball hard into the net. Little Italy had the lead.“Defense now!” Calvin shouted as he ran back into position.Little Italy tightened its zone, hustled for every loose ball, and held its ground. When the final whistle blew, Calvin dropped to his knees and raised his fists.“You’re the man!” shouted Zero, putting his hands on Calvin’s shoulders and squeezing.Calvin was exhausted but thrilled. He yanked off his T-shirt and wiped his face and shoulders, then walked proudly off the field.Jessie Rosado jogged by closely as Calvin walked off. “Pretty good,” she said, not meeting his eyes.“Thanks,” said Calvin, turning to look. Jessie kept jogging. And Calvin walked right into her sister Danielle.Danielle stumbled backward but smiled. “Yuck,” she said, wiping her hands on her shirt. “Is that sweat?”“What do you think?” Calvin said, grinning. “I been running for forty-eight minutes.”“You ran good,” she said. “But watch us now. You’ll learn something.”Coach Diaz called the team over. “Great win. Smart and tough. We’ll only get better.”Zero punched Calvin’s arm. “What now?” he said.Calvin shrugged. “I need about a gallon of fluid. Let’s get something and come back.”“For what?”“To watch the second game,” Calvin said. “Check out the competition.” He squinted and looked at the field, where the Bauer Electric players were warming up. “Let’s see how good those twins really are. See what makes them tick.”6The CountT
he Rosado twins were excellent players. They scored two goals apiece and totally controlled the game as Bauer Electric put up a dominating 5-0 victory.Zero and Calvin sat on the grass with quart bottles of Gatorade. The sky grew darker and there was occasional thunder, but things stayed dry during the game. A cooling breeze blew during the second half. Calvin lay back and looked at the clouds rolling in.“I’m starving,” Zero said as the game ended. “I still think we might get free pizza if we wear our jerseys into Little Italy.”Page 4
“If I wear this jersey anywhere I’ll get thrown out on the street,” Calvin said, looking at the balled-up orange shirt on the ground. “It’s got about fifteen pounds of sweat in it.”“Let’s get pizza anyway,” Zero said. “I got money left.”They walked up to the Boulevard. A large wooden sign had been posted on the lawn of St. Joseph’s Church, announcing the parish’s annual carnival and street fair. It would run for three evenings in July at the field behind the church.“Definitely gonna hit that a couple of times,” Zero said.“They got great calzones,” Calvin said. “And sausage sandwiches.”“How come you’re so skinny when all you do is eat?” Zero asked.“Quick metabolism. And hey, I run my butt off.”“That you do.”Calvin stopped walking and stared at the sign. “What?” Zero asked.“Just thinking about the carnival.” Calvin clasped his hands and placed them on top of his head. “Just was thinking that there aren’t a lot of ... you know ... social opportunities like that in this town.”Zero rolled his eyes but smiled. “Oh, man,” he said. “The twins?”“You know what I’m saying.” Calvin pointed at the sign. “Fun. Food. Rides. Think we could pull it off?”Zero shrugged. “Worth trying, I suppose.”“I’ll drop a few hints. Test the water, you know. They’re pretty sassy, but I think they might join us. We’re fairly sophisticated, aren’t we?”Zero laughed. “That’s stretching it, I’d say. But I don’t know. I always thought they were out of our league.”“The way I see it, we’re in the same league at the moment. Just different divisions.”“That’s not what I meant.”“I know what you meant.” Calvin frowned. “Don’t forget, bro—we’re undefeated.” The boys juggled their cleats, shin guards, T-shirts, and slices of pizza as they made their way out of the Little Italy restaurant and onto the sidewalk. Ernie Salinardi had greeted them by name and was thrilled that they’d won. “Best pizza in town,” he’d said. “Best team, too, I hope.”They were way uptown, between Third and Fourth Streets, in an area of the Boulevard that was mostly residential—tall old trees and apartment buildings, some huge clapboarded houses, a couple of small shops, and the pizza place.Calvin stopped walking as they approached the corner. “The Count,” he said.“What?”Calvin pointed to a man standing near the bus-stop bench, holding a leash attached to a big German shepherd. The man had fuzzy hair sticking out from an old Yankees cap pulled low on his head, and a dark windbreaker. It was hard to tell his age. Thirty-five? Sixty?“The Count,” Calvin repeated. “You never heard of him?”“Nope.”“He counts buses.”“You’re kidding me.”Calvin looked at Zero in disbelief. “You don’t get out much, do you? The guy islegendaryin this town, man. Ask him what the count is.”“Me?”“Yeah. Ask him.”Zero shook his head, but he took a couple of steps toward the man, who was staring intently at the Boulevard, looking up the street and then down.“Hey!” Zero said loudly. He started to laugh. “What’s the count?”The man turned his head slightly and looked blankly at the boys. “Three up, four down,” he said softly.Zero looked at Calvin.“Down is that way,” Calvin whispered, pointing toward Jersey City, “toward the Holland Tunnel. Up is toward the Lincoln. He comes out here every night and counts buses in each direction until one side reaches five. He’s been doing it for years. Never says a word unless you ask him what the count is.”“He crazy?”“I don’t know. My father says he’s harmless.”“Homeless?”“Harmless. I think he lives right here.” Calvin jutted his thumb toward a shabby brick apartment building.“Here comes one,” Zero said loudly, pointing toward a New Jersey Transit bus coming up the hill from Jersey City. “That’ll tie it up.”The heavy rain started as the bus went by. Big cold drops. Within seconds the ground was soaked and steaming, and the rain was pelting their heads. The drops were hitting so hard that they were bouncing off the pavement.The boys started running back toward their homes, darting across the Boulevard. The downpour had hit so fast that they had to jump across a torrent at the gutter.“This is nuts!” Calvin said. “What are we running for? We’re already soaked.”“It doesn’t rain all month and then we get a hurricane!” Zero said.They glanced back as they reached Fifth Street. The Count was still standing at the bus stop, ignoring the storm. “He won’t leave until one side gets to five,” Calvin said.“Hemustbe crazy.”“Yeah,” Calvin replied. “He must be.”7Below minimumL
ittle Italy stayed unbeaten over the next week. Calvin scored twice in a rout of Villa Roma and once in a wild 4-4 tie with Luigi’s.He was dog-tired as he lay in bed the morning after the tie, staring at the ceiling. It felt as if he’d sprinted up and down that field a hundred times.So they’d made it through the pizza-division side of the schedule the first time without a loss. But now they’d play the teams in the other division, starting with Bauer Electric and its perfect 3-0 record.The bedroom door opened and Calvin’s dad was standing there with a grin.“You’re off today?” Calvin said.“Yes I am. You ready to work?”Mr. Tait was an assistant principal at a high school in Jersey City. He still had the build of a basketball standout, and was usually dressed in a suit and tie. Though classes had ended for the summer, he was at the school most weekdays, taking care of details. Today he was wearing a red golf shirt and tailored shorts. He held up a list and shook it playfully. “Lots of chores,” he said.Calvin nodded reluctantly. “I hear you.”“Garage door needs to be painted. Got some shrubs to plant along the front of the house. Lawn needs trimming.” Mr. Tait glanced at the list and rubbed his chin. “That’s probably enough.” He looked amused. “For this morning.”Calvin sat up and spun his legs to the floor. It was 7:14 A.M. “Starting early, huh?”His father winked. “Seize the day.” He made an embarrassing little dance move, tightening his arms and thrusting his hips to the side.Calvin winced. “Very cool, Dad.”Twenty minutes later Calvin was stirring paint in the driveway.“Don’t spill it,” Dad said. “Keep it on the drop cloth.”Calvin sighed. “I know, Dad. I don’t intend to spill any.”“Just reminding you. When you go too fast, you screw up.”“I got it, Dad. You gonna stand there and watch me?”“No-ho-ho,” Mr. Tait said, stretching out the word. “I’ve got plenty to do myself. I’ll check up on you from time to time.”Yeah,Calvin thought as his dad went back into the house.Like every ten minutes.He climbed a few rungs of the stepladder and started the job, applying the white paint with a brush. It wasn’t a hard job, just tedious around the glass windowpanes. Within an hour he was half done.Zero had come over by then, eating a peanut-butter sandwich and examining Calvin’s work. He had bare feet and his curly hair was in disarray from going to sleep right after washing it.“Missed a spot,” Zero said, pointing toward the edge of a pane.Calvin frowned and dabbed at the spot with his brush. He had a few specks of paint on his arms and his face.“You’re turning white,” Zero said with a laugh.“Guess I been hanging out with you too much. Your genes are rubbing off on me.”“Think you’ll be done soon?”“No. But it don’t matter. He’s got me working all day.”“Thought we’d hang out later.”“We’ll see.” Calvin kept painting as they talked, stopping only to study his work, looking for places he’d missed.“Carnival’s next weekend,” Zero said.“Think I don’t know that?”“We getting anywhere?”“Ain’t tried yet. Figured I’d talk to them after the game.”“After we beat ’em?”“Afterwhatever.You seen them play.”“We can beat them.”Calvin nodded slowly. “We’d better.”The back door opened and Mr. Tait came out. He strolled over and looked at the paint job. “Not bad,” he said.“Morning, Mr. Tait,” said Zero.“Hello, Zachary. Nice day, huh?”“Perfect.”They stood quietly for a moment, watching Calvin paint. “Well,” said Zero. “Think I’ll watch some TV. See you later.” He walked across his back-yard and into his house.“Ambitious kid,” Mr. Tait said quietly, with a big dose of sarcasm.“He’s okay,” Calvin said.“He might mow that lawn of theirs.” Mr. Tait motioned toward the Rollisons’ tiny yard, which had patches of worn dirt and many high tufts of grass that hadn’t been mowed in weeks. In contrast, the Taits’ lawn was thick and green and was neatly trimmed at the edges. “You can do ours when you finish here.”Calvin was nearly done painting when his mom came out of the house with his four-year-old sister, Chelsea. “Great job!” Mom said. “Look at the work your big man of a brother did, sweetie. Isn’t that wonderful?”Chelsea smiled at Calvin. “You got white freckles,” she said.“We’re going food shopping,” Mom said. “Anything special you want for dinner?”“Nah, but could you bring me a drink or something? Dad’s gonna have me working all day.”“I’ll rescue you,” Mom said. “Work until lunchtime. I’ll keep your father off your back.”After cleaning up the paint job, Calvin mowed the lawn, which didn’t take very long. The lots in this neighborhood were small.“Three and a half hours’ work?” Mr. Tait said as they sat at the kitchen table eating lunch. He opened his wallet and handed Calvin a ten-dollar bill.Calvin smiled but said, “Don’t I get minimum wage, at least?”“Not in this house, bud.”“Thanks anyway.” He folded the bill in half and put it in his pocket.“You should save some of that,” Dad said.“We’ll see.”Calvin went next door and got Zero, and they made their way downtown, passing the elementary school and stepping around a couple of bicycles lying on their sides on the sidewalk. They didn’t say much; Calvin deflected Zero’s comments about soccer and the Yankees with one-word responses. He had a plan, and he was focusing on it the way he’d prepare for a basketball game or a race. Thinking. Going over the strategy in his head.“I remembered something when I was cutting the lawn,” he said finally as they reached St. Joseph’s Church. “They got gymnastics at the Y this afternoon.”“Who does?”“Them.Our new buddies.”“Oh.”“Should be coming out anytime now. Let’s get a drink and hang.”They went into the market and wasted no time getting bottles of soda. Then they crossed back over the Boulevard and took a seat on the YMCA’s cement front steps, watching traffic.A bus went by after about ten minutes.“One up,” Zero said.Calvin gave a short, huffy laugh. He stared at the message board on the Y’s front lawn:AEROBICS CLASSES NOW FORMING.SUMMER DAY-CAMP OPENINGS.MEN’S BASKETBALL SIGN-UPS.
“Hey, hey.”Danielle Rosado was standing in the doorway in a violet leotard and bare feet. She had athletic tape around her wrists, and her hands were white with chalk from the uneven bars. “What are you boys up to?” she asked.“Hanging out,” Zero said. “What are you doing?”Danielle held up her hands and said, “Duh. Gymnastics.”“You good at it?” Zero asked.Danielle shrugged. “I guess. Been doing it since I was five.”Calvin stood up. He was taller than Danielle, but he was standing three steps below her. So he climbed to the top step and pulled his shoulders back a little, trying to look built. He leaned on the railing.“So,” he said. “We play you guys on Tuesday.”“That right?”“That’s what the schedule says.”“Should be interesting.”“We think so.”Danielle looked back toward the gym. “Jessie’s still on the bars.”Calvin took a gulp of his orange soda, then held out the bottle to Danielle. “Want a hit?”Danielle pulled back slightly and wrinkled her nose, then shook her head. “No thanks.”“Season’s going fast,” Calvin said. “Before you know it, we’ll be in the playoffs.”“I guess.”“You know what? I think the church carnival is coming up already. That right, Z?”“Yeah,” Zero said. “I think it’s next weekend.”“Next weekend?” Calvin said. “Wow. I didn’t know that. You going to the carnival, Danielle?”“Probably. We usually do.”“Yeah. Us, too.”Calvin inhaled deeply and let it out. “Hot day,” he said.“It’s stifling in the gym,” Danielle said. “That’s why I came out here.”“Uh-huh,” said Calvin. “Yeah.” His throat felt very dry suddenly, so he took another swig of soda. “So ... that carnival ... you think you might be going, huh?”Danielle looked amused. She raised her eyebrows and said, “Mm-hmm.”“Yeah ... us, too.”“Maybe we’ll see you boys there.”Calvin swallowed hard. “Yeah. Maybe Friday night?”Danielle shrugged, but slowly. “Maybe.”“Me and Zero will probably get there around six.” Danielle smiled sweetly, but looked like she was holding back a giggle. “We probably will, too.”