Better Than You

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Chapter 6

I missed the days when soccer practices were just us girls.

The boys naturally posed as healthy competition-- the kind that every girl needed to excel-- but I didn’t remember the last time I’d run through such thick tension. If it wasn’t tension that was the problem, then I didn’t remember the last time the I’d seen my team so distracted. It was like trying harder to impress whoever they were eyeing on the boys side of the field was only making them worse.

Then there were the players who were constantly trying to get someone’s attention by taunting, which I honestly didn’t mind initially because technically, I’d been taunting Bryce since we were in the womb (not because I was trying to get his attention), but it was beginning to be a bit much. Productivity was going down and at this rate, neither of our teams would win even silver with this attitude.

“This is a mess,” I told Haley.

“Maybe you can ask coach to alternate training days between the teams,” she suggested. She took an unusually small sip from her large jug.

“Cut training in half?”

“Doubling the quality,” she said. She gestured at coach with the tip of her jug. “Coach looks so done. He’ll probably agree with you anyway.”

“What if it’s just because it’s the first week in? What if, by the time everyone gets used to it, everything will go back to normal?”

“When’ll that be? Right before the season.”

“I don’t get it,” I said, splashing some cold water on my face. “The field is huge. We can train together just fine if everyone stopped getting distracted.”

“What can we do?” she said, jogging backwards back to the field, where everyone was running drills. “Boys just automatically get hotter when they can kick a ball. They may as well have their shirts off.”

As if on cue, I saw Bryce kick a ball straight into the corner of the goal, right under the white goal post, straight past the best goalie the school had seen in years.

I pursed my lips, jogging after her. “I thought you said you didn’t date soccer players.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t know how to appreciate them. You know me; very grateful.”

“I bet Max Sanders will be really glad to hear that,” I said knowingly.

She narrowed her eyes at me. “You promised we wouldn’t talk about it ever again. Shh.”

“What’s so different about him and all the other guys you used to moon after?”

“The difference is,” she said. “He’s my cousins best friend. That means one day, he’s probably going to be at her wedding. And I’ll be at her wedding as her bridesmaid. He’ll be there as Clay’s groomsman. And if he ever found out that I have it bad for him, that is going to be the most awkward two hours of my life. I can’t do it, Mads. I just can’t.”

Haley’s cousin was one of the popular cheerleaders dating a popular football player and was friends with other cheerleaders and football players. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone Haley used to crush on ended up attending Liz Cooper’s wedding because of her far social reach was.

“Or he’ll say that he’s into you, too,” I said. “Maybe he’ll even ask you out.”

“He’s a senior.”

“And you’re a gorgeous junior,” I said. “Who can resist?”

“Really hot football players,” she mumbled as she jogged back to run some drills.

I was about to follow when I heard Coach call me over. “Maddie, Jacobs, come over here for a second.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Of course Coach was going to notice something was off. I guess I just hoped he wasn’t going to mention it-- maybe allow things to fall into place on its own. But then again, that wasn’t a coach’s job. There was a wince in my steps as I ran over, but I tried to keep as lax as possible.

“Hi, Coach,” I said. “What do you need?”

Bryce came up beside me, panting a little, sweat dripping down his face like he’d just come out of the pool.

“I’m needed at the office.” Oh thank God, it wasn’t about how off my team was. “It’s an emergency, but I don’t want to have to cut training short because of it.” He began to list out a series of drills for us to do. Bryce listened intently, crossing his arms over his chest, while I hopped over the bleachers to grab my phone to jot them down in my note-taking app.

“I want all of these done by everyone by the end of the day.” He started to walk away, but seemed to remember something and paused, glancing back at us. “And please, for the love of God, do something about your players. Maddie, I was assured that you girls play better than that and Jacobs, are you boys really incapable of performing in front of a few girls.”

“No, Coach,” he said.

“Great,” Coach said. “Then do something. If y’all can’t learn how to adjust to a little bit of change, how are any of you going to be tough enough to walk out of the season as champions?”

Then he walked away.

As soon as he was out of ear range, I felt the need to defend us. “We do usually play better than this,” I told Bryce. “It’s just an off day.”

“Same,” he said quickly.

I pursed my lips. “Okay, it’s more than an off day. I think everyone’s getting thrown off because of the whole mixed training thing.”

“I feel like this place has become a dating show.”

I laughed as I read through the drills that I’d written down on my phone. “Okay, everyone, listen up!”

Nobody listened up.

“I think you’re going to have to be a bit louder,” Bryce said, clearly amused with my lame efforts.

“Hello!” I tried. I let out an exasperated groan and succumbed to, “Bryce, a little help?”

Bryce made a face-- a smirk, but not quite-- cupped his hands around his mouth so close like he was going to sneeze instead of announce something, and shouted, “Yo! Listen up!”

To no one’s surprise, everyone stopped what they were doing.

Seriously.

They looked up and immediately walked over.

Bryce gave me a smug grin, patting his stomach lightly. “It’s all in the core. Want me to show you?”

I rolled my eyes. “You really think you’re all that, don’t you?”

“Mom raised me to believe it,” he said. “Your mom, too.”

“Hey, where’d Coach go?” Haley said. “Did he give up already? I was giving him at least another week.”

“He’s in a meeting,” Bryce said. “But I think he’s pretty much giving us a week to get our shit together.”

Eyes began to find the ground more interesting than our faces. Surprisingly even the girls who’d been trying all day to get his attention, took their gazes away.

“Neither of us are going to win,” he said. “If we don’t start taking this seriously. I know it sucks that things are a bit different, but that’s life. Things change and all we can do is roll with the punches.”

I looked up at him. I’d known Bryce Jacobs all my life, longer than I’ve ever wanted to know anyone. I knew what he looked like with braces. I knew what he looked like when he was crying at six years old. But this Bryce-- this Bryce with crossed arms and furrowed eyebrows that made his seriousness a little bit endearing-- I had yet to know.

“This is how it’s going to be now,” I continued. “And if we can’t deal with how different it all is, then we don’t deserve to win. And I don’t know about you guys, but I plan on getting gold this year.”

The gazes that fell to the ground are on me now and smiles are covering their faces.

“We’re a team now,” Bryce said. “We can do the whole boys versus girls competitive thing any other time. But on this field, while we’re training to kick ass, we’re in this together. And by that I mean no more making googley-eyes at each other as if no one will notice. I notice, Scott.”

I pursed my lips to stifle my laugh.

“Agreed?” Bryce said.

The teams– the team– nodded. “Agreed,” I said. “Coach left us a couple drills to do for the rest of the day. We can only leave when we’ve all finished them.” I glanced at Bryce, urging him to continue. “Yeah, drills. Maddie’s going to tell you what they are because she wrote them down.”

“I thought you were listening to him.”

“Not going to lie, I totally spaced out when you started typing.”

I shook my head, “Boys.”

“Typical,” Avery teased.

I pulled out my phone and listed down all the drills. Some were simple, some were ones that I’d never heard of before, so Bryce had to take a couple minutes to specifically explain a couple of them. Ultimately, we worked out a system that was going to get things done as quickly as possible by dividing the teams into plenty of small groups, mixing boys and girls so they’d get used to have to work up a sweat well in front of the other.

“Everyone, take a sip and then let’s start,” Bryce said, and immediately, everyone did.

Usually it took a bit more effort on my part to get everyone to listen so attentively. “I think I’ll keep you,” I muttered only loud enough for him to hear. “You’re pretty handy.”

“With babysitting, too, I hear.”

“You were more like an extra baby.”

“That’s not what I heard,” he said, taking a drink. “Your mom told my mom that you loved that I came over to help you out. Made your life easier.”

“No, she didn’t.”

But if I was going to be honest with myself, it actually was entirely possible that I said something like ‘Bryce wasn’t too bad today’ and my mom twisted it around to sound something like that so that Bryce’s mom could twist it around again so that it could sound like something more than that.

“She did. My mom’s way ahead of you, though. She’s giving me dating advice.”

“Does she have any good ones?”

“Nope.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. I shook my head quickly. “No, I mean, it’s not. We wouldn’t make a good couple.” I stared out into the field. “But I think we just might make a pretty good team.”

“I guess we do, partner,” he bumped my shoulder, shooting me a wink. I didn’t think boys could pull off winks.

“Now, I regret saying it,” I said before I jogged off to the start of the road to gold.

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