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Eight years later, my own beautiful game lives on

‘Hi, I’m Joe,” he said.

I turned around and watched my mom waving goodbye from the parking lot of the field.

“We’re doing wedgetraps.” His eyes crinkled gently, and his silver moustache twitched in place, hiding a smile. “Just throw the ball up and catch it like this under your toes . . .”

I looked across the field at a flurry of soccer balls chased by a stampede of 9-year-old girls, ponytails flicking through the air and feet tripping over shin guards that were bigger than shins. Back then, we were all knees and elbows, all gap-toothed smiles and hair ribbons. At my second practice, Joe said there was another Emily already on the team.

“I’m going to call you MG,” he said. “After the sportscar.” That was the first nickname I ever received, and it managed to stick for a good number of years. I was not Emily anymore, but MG, and I could sense that something was beginning to shift.

That first season we ran around like a cluster of bees, buzzing and flying after the ball, spiraling a path of cleat marks through the soggy grass. I tried to keep up with the pack, but more often than not, I hung back, waiting nervously for the ball to come my way, unsure of what I was supposed to accomplish in 60 minutes.

“Run, Emily, faster!” I could hear my mom yelling at me from the sidelines. We looked like soldiers out there – an army of blue and white, our orange socks flashing like a warning in the night. At the end of every fall, we would assemble for pizza and plastic trophies, forced to wait months until our next game.

Over the years, the referee’s stopwatch has gone from 60 to 90 minutes, and our game is getting more serious. I’ve seen countless broken bones, ACL tears and concussions. I carry my scars like real battle wounds because they are. You can’t hide in a fight, and the girls on my team know each other in a way that no one else will.

We stayed together because we love the same beautiful game. For most, it is a game that ends with childhood, but we’ve been lucky. I don’t know if I will play soccer after this year, but I know that it will not ever be the same, and that leaves a bitter taste.

What will I do without people who know that part of me? What will happen when the time comes for me to unlace my ripped-up ankle brace, walk off the field and put aside childish things?

The summers are the best part; it’s tournament season, when all the wind sprints, squat jumps and side lunges become worth it. We get one sleepaway tournament every year, and we make the most of it. We sneak snacks from the vending machines and soothe our knees under ice and Saran wrap. Our jerseys smell like sweat and sunscreen, and our hotel rooms are littered with ribbons of athletic tape and sticky pre-wrap.

We compare the hopelessness of the tan lines on our thighs. We jump into pools between games. We watch our coaches, Joe and Dino, nudge magnets around on a whiteboard.

Sometimes we see yellow cards, and sometimes we see red cards, but after every game, we line up and high-five our opponents with versions of “Good game!” and smiles that are sometimes not entirely genuine. We take home medals and shiny pins that fall off our backpacks within days. We hear “anticipate the ball!” and “get your head up!” because to be a good soccer player, you have to know what’s coming. You have to remember that when the whistle blows, the game is about to end.

I don’t know exactly how many summers we have left together, but it’s not many. Most of us are going off to college next year, and there’s no guarantee after that. We’ve transitioned from halftime orange slices and cupcakes to Nugo bars and watered-down Gatorade, but we still show up to practice keepaway and small-side scrimmage.

Some of us are new, and some of us are old, but we are still a team, for now. A few weeks ago I came to practice, and Joe was with another team on the field next to ours. They were a team of younger girls, maybe 13 or 14, running the same drills with him that we used to run. Their ponytails flicked through the air, and their shin guards were too big for their legs. I couldn’t stop staring.

Emily Ge, who will be a senior at Charles Wright Academy, lives in Gig Harbor. She is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at geemily26@gmail.com.