"I want a sexy one!"
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The Ballard High School girls' tennis team has just demolished Juanita High 9-0, sweeping all six singles matches and three doubles matches, but junior Zoe Cross-Karras isn't interested in reveling in the win. Instead, with a barely disguised grin, she wants Aaron Silverberg, the first-year coach of the Beavers, to read another poem from his self-published book. Much of the bus ride back to school has consisted of Silverberg reciting verse as the 11 varsity girls try to keep straight faces. Silverberg, oblivious to the exchanged glances and rolling eyes, flips through a few pages until he finds the one he wants.
"OK, are you ready for the spiritual/sensual poem of the year?" he asks.
"Yeah!" Zoe shouts, as senior doubles specialist Flora Anderson sinks lower in her seat and draws the hood of her sweatshirt over her face.
Love soaked bodies
dunked in milk,
to the surrender point
"Aaron's bringing sexy back," senior co-captain Mikaela Louie jokes.
"Read another racy one!" Zoe demands.
"Here we go," Silverberg says. "This one's to God."
Drinking you in.
Melting you under
Touching you the way
the sea strokes
every few seconds...
"Was that sexy enough?" Silverberg asks.
"Jeez, how much sexier can I get?" Silverberg says. "Hey, what's the difference between full-blown spirituality and full-blown sexuality?"
The girls shrug and exchange quizzical glances. "Well, what's the answer?" senior co-captain Neah Ortman asks.
"None," Silverberg says. "Our worship for each other is the same for God. Read Rumi. His poems are no different for God and for people."
"More poems!" Neah hollers.
The 50-year-old Silverberg obliges, delighted that the girls have taken such a keen interest in one of his many hobbies. A life coach by profession, Silverberg is the picture of the modern-day Renaissance man. He played collegiate tennis while obtaining a bachelor's degree in philosophy, bookended that with a master's in computer science, and enjoyed a lucrative career as a software engineer. Now, when he isn't helping his clients become fully actualized individuals, he's writing poetry, recording flute music, or tending to his organic vegetable garden in Wedgwood.
Silverberg signed on as the Ballard coach in February, the third coach in four years for a school with little tradition of tennis success. But Silverberg, who also worked as the head tennis pro for a Chicago club, saw great potential in the girls, and aimed to not only turn them into champions but also empower them with the life skills they would need as they bade farewell to their childhoods. On paper, the girls and the self-proclaimed "Buddhist tennis coach" seemed like a perfect match.
"I've got a joke for you guys," Silverberg announces. "What do Buddhist children say on a long car trip?"
"Nothing?" offers Mikaela.
"Nope. They say, 'It's OK, we're already there!'"
The girls groan.
On an unseasonably warm, sunny day in early April, Silverberg runs his team through practice on Ballard High's tennis courts. Over the din of a construction crew across the street, he shouts instruction to the players. "Stop and pop," he says, imploring one girl to split step when her hitting partner strikes the ball. "Close the window shade," he tells the doubles team on the next court, reminding them to rush the net as a team. "Fast back, easy out," he says, trying to teach the tempo for a ground stroke. When all the moving parts work in concert to produce an especially fine shot, he shouts, "Nice!" and flashes a thumbs-up.
But it's the last practice before spring break, and the girls are preoccupied with things besides tennis. During their rallies, they keep up a steady patter of conversation, pausing only to announce the score or hit the ball. They spend most of the water break comparing tan lines.
"This is girl time," Silverberg says, waiting with a bemused expression. "They don't want to be rushed."
The girls eventually pick up their racquets and return to the courts. But just a few minutes after practice resumes, junior Lucy Miner freezes in the middle of her serve. "Oh. My. God," she says, zeroing in on a trio of muscular, shirtless, blond construction workers walking to their truck.
"Are you serious?" Neah says.
"I was wondering if anyone else saw that," chimes in junior Julia Canty.
"I did," Lucy breathes.
"Ow!" Neah squeals. "One of us should definitely get their numbers before this week is over."
Silverberg overhears the conversation and halts play. "Focus on tennis," he lectures. "Don't deplete your sexual energy on those guys, or anything else. None of that shit. That's out. You're samurai."
The season began in February at the Starbucks at 71st and Greenlake, not far from the Lower Woodland tennis courts where the Beavers play their home matches. There, the newly minted coach sat down with senior captains Neah, Mikaela, and Natasha Kelly to discuss goals and expectations for the upcoming season. Silverberg, who coached one season at Ingraham High five years ago, had learned about the opening at Ballard from a friend and figured why not. "Might as well do my community service," he says.
In return, Silverberg inherited nine seniors with almost 30 combined years of varsity experience but precious few match wins. Leading the girls was Neah, the No. 1 player and a dogged competitor who picked up the sport from her older brother, who played for the Ballard boys' team. Like most of the other Beavers, her game is a mishmash of self-taught skills accented with whatever she's been able to glean from different coaches.
Once Silverberg had selected the dozen varsity players, he set out to correct bad habits. He told Neah that if she wanted to play doubles, she needed to change her volley grip; senior No. 6, Hana Schooley, had to use her slice more and hit lower over the net. The girls ran before practice. They charted matches. Sometimes, Silverberg just assigned them to a court and waited for them to figure out what they should be doing. "They don't know what to make of me," Silverberg says. "They're not used to someone making them work. I'm life coaching without them knowing.
"Girls are given a lot of slack," he explains. "They can coast on their looks, and I'm trying to hold their feet to the fire. The college world will test them: 'Do I get laid and get a husband, or focus on me and contribute to the world?' Girls get big-time double messages, and they need good information, but young men don't know how to be allies to women—they objectify them. Coaches can be that ally. They won't realize the coaching they're getting for 20 years."
With Silverberg at the helm, the Beavers run out to their best start in years, beating Bellevue High and Interlake High by wide margins, and squeaking by Eastlake High in their conference opener. "We sucked in the past, so we thought this year, we're seniors, we'd just have fun," Neah marvels. "But we're actually winning."
And that's about when Silverberg makes his first mistake. Wanting to bridge the gap between the nine seniors and three juniors, he appoints Lucy as a fourth captain. Neah immediately fires off a batch of indignant e-mails, asking Silverberg how Lucy had earned a captainship. We've done all this work, she writes, how can you just pick Lucy? Silverberg doesn't rescind the captainship, but he also doesn't mention it again. "The looseness of their previous coaches allowed them to create their own political structure," he says. "There are lots of rivalries. Lord of the Flies applies to girls, too."
A couple of weeks after the captainship discussion, Vicky Long, the lowest-ranked varsity player, privately confesses to Silverberg that she feels excluded. The next day at practice, Silverberg calls the team together. He scolds the girls for leaving out Vicky and then admonishes her for not taking the initiative to participate more. The move, though well-intentioned, backfires. Vicky quits the team a few days later, and Silverberg loses points with the remaining girls, who all profess ignorance of Vicky's turmoil and are appalled that he singled someone out before the entire team. "Girls are way more sensitive than boys," says Hana. "Lining us all up and calling out one person isn't the right way."
Worst of all, Hana, far and away Silverberg's favorite player, injures her ankle right before a match against league powerhouse Lake Washington in late March. It's easy to see why Silverberg values Hana. She's well trained, enjoys competing, and constantly offers jockish exhortations to her teammates, even while in the middle of her own match. An opposing coach, unprompted, remarked to Silverberg that his No. 6 was "the one." "I love tennis," Hana says. "I like how all the pressure's on you and you can't blame anyone."
"Neah, Mikaela, and Tash are our social captains," Silverberg says. "But our war chief is Hana. She has the right attitude, the right weapons, the right skills—everything. She's my ideal player. If I had six girls like Hana, we'd win state, unquestionably."
But Silverberg's ardor doesn't always go over well with Hana's teammates. "I think coaches like her because we never grew up getting official lessons, so we don't do things the right way," Neah explains with a tinge of defensiveness. "But Hana has had"—she pauses dramatically—"USTA lessons her whole life."
According to Silverberg, Hana should be playing higher, but she inexplicably lost her challenge matches and wound up at No. 6. (Varsity matches consist of six singles matches and three doubles, each match counting for one point toward the team score.) Silverberg suspects Hana's position on the ladder has less to do with her ability than with the observance of some unspoken hierarchy. "Hana has the game to play No. 1," Silverberg says. "There's an intrateam thing that I don't get. Socially, Hana is kind of like an engineer. All those girls care about being pretty and popular, and Hana's just not that same kind of girl."
Ironically, Silverberg's affection for Hana isn't reciprocated. Of the many occupational hazards for high-school tennis coaches, perhaps the most perilous is tiptoeing around the private coaches that their players often have. Though Hana is the only one who takes lessons outside of tennis season, her loyalty lies with her club pro, Brad Hamilton, the coach of the Ballard boys' team and the man who hired Silverberg. When Silverberg suggested she make changes to her strokes, Hana took exception and called Hamilton to complain. Hamilton then called Silverberg. Hana's disdain for Silverberg was sealed when, a week after tryouts, Hana got into an argument with Silverberg at practice. "What are you going to do?" she recalls him saying. "Call Brad about it?"
Now, when Silverberg tries to coach Hana during matches, she waves him off. "I don't like talking to him, and I want him to know that," she says.
Meanwhile, Silverberg also has to contend with the specters of previous coaches. Both Tony Richardson, last year's coach, and Sohel Azhar, who coached the seniors when they were freshmen, show up to watch matches, and neither seems to have any reservations about offering Silverberg's players advice or pointing out how much better things were when they were in charge. "They've been loitering at the last few matches," Silverberg says. "It makes me feel kind of creepy. I wouldn't come around if I wasn't coaching the team."
But Silverberg expected some resistance to his methods. "I believe they have the knowledge of how to conduct themselves, and we can't force that," he says. "When they say, 'Tell me what to do,' they're playing into women as victims, women as objects of control."
Just about every youth sports coach worth his salt aims to instill life as well as sports skills in his charges. Ideally, both develop at the same rate, but tennis is a uniquely problematic sport to master. Imagine the complexity of a golf stroke, executed several times each point with the reaction time of a baseball batter, often on the run, while trying to plan X number of shots ahead before deciding the placement, pace, spin, and trajectory of your own shot. A single breakdown in that algorithm and the point is lost.
Tennis' combination of physical and mental stressors engenders a special sort of paralysis when the pressure builds. First, the feet get heavy. Next, the chest constricts. Then, muscles begin to take great effort to move. Eventually, even the most basic, instinctive strokes take on a foreign, detached quality, like repeating a word until the tongue gets thick and it loses its meaning. The veneer unravels for a comprehensive exposure of a player's weaknesses for all to see. And there's nothing anyone can do about it. It's a lot like the average day at high school.
"These girls don't know what they've got," Silverberg says. "I could walk on and coach the UW men right now, but I do this mostly because tennis is an apt microcosm for going for it in life. It's a little ritual space of war and love and caring and engagement."
But Silverberg doesn't play the matches, and without Hana, Ballard loses to Lake Washington 6-3. The Beavers momentarily right the ship with a 9-0 win over Franklin before taking another step backward with a 5-4 loss to Bothell. Though the team sports a 4-2 record, Silverberg doesn't see the kind of improvement he expected, and no one has taken up the slack for Hana as Ballard heads into the most challenging part of its schedule. "These girls have five critical matches left," he says before practice one afternoon. "I'm trying to get them into the top three, but they've got to want it more."
He turns to the team. "Hey, what's a good prize if you guys finish top three?"
"Money," Neah deadpans.
"Let's end practice early," Julia says in her best plaintive whine. "It's so nice, and everyone's out doing something."
"Yeah, that's what we want," Mikaela echoes.
"God, the complaining," Silverberg mutters.
In early April, the Beavers post a 6-3 win over Garfield High to improve to 5-2 before scattering for spring break. On an overcast afternoon over the break, Mikaela, Neah, and Zoe get together at Lower Woodland, but not to play tennis. Instead, they munch sunflower seeds and watch the Ballard baseball team lose to Redmond.
Neah and Mikaela have been friends ever since they both joined the tennis team as freshmen ("We're like sisters," Mikaela says). Silverberg describes Neah as the alpha girl and Mikaela as the conciliator.
Historically, girls' tennis at Ballard hasn't been taken very seriously by its participants. Two years ago, one girl wore a bicycle helmet during a match as a joke ("It was so funny," Neah giggles). Last year, one senior quit the team because she wasn't made captain.
Halfway through this season, fatigue has already set in on the girls. "I don't think [Aaron] knows that we can have practice over spring break," Mikaela says. "But we're not going to tell him."
"This is really bad," Neah adds, "but on days it rains, we're happy because we don't have to play."
The truth is, Silverberg needs the break just as much as the girls. "I try, but they just don't have that killer instinct," he laments. "And the stick doesn't work, so what do you dangle as a carrot? 'Hey, there's rich men out here watching. If you play well, you'll marry one. Or you'll get a nice car.'"
The lack of killer instinct made a nightmare out of formulating the ladder, the lineup of players from best to worst (at least in theory). The girls only grudgingly played the requisite challenge matches to set the ladder at the beginning of the year. "We hate challenge matches," Neah says. "It's not fun playing your friends."
"People get mad and people hold grudges," Mikaela adds. "It's not good for team morale. When I played Tash, it was probably the worst match of my life."
"The girls don't want to compete with other girls," Silverberg observes. "They want to be cautious and nonconfrontational and all that shit. They don't know it's OK to have a certain amount of masculine energy. They get messages from boys to be docile creatures. I'm saying fuck that. Be superwomen. We don't have women heroes, and I'm going to do everything I can to change that."
Though better men then Silverberg have failed, he's determined to be more than just a tennis coach to the girls. "It's a fine line," he admits. "I have to find out what they want independent of their culture. It's like a piece of steel between two magnets. That's Buddha's middle way."
While growing up in suburban Chicago, the Four Noble Truths were the furthest thing from Silverberg's mind. He describes himself as a typical Midwestern boy with a limited worldview who was into sports. One summer, when he was 11, he happened to pick up tennis at camp and went on to become a ranked junior player and compete for the team at Grinnell College in Iowa. During his junior year, he spent a semester abroad in England, and Iowa never looked the same to him again. Thirsting for more, he moved to California and transferred to the University of California–Santa Cruz.
Silverberg played tennis for the Banana Slugs, who recently won their sixth NCAA Division III title. He also discovered Buddhism, and wrote his thesis on Camus and intellectual suicide. "I'm very into being awake," he says. "That's been a theme throughout my life."
After graduating, Silverberg returned to Chicago to work as a tennis pro and earned a master's degree in computer science. He moved to Seattle in 1988, got married, had a son, and worked as a database administrator for Oracle. "The money was good, but the lifestyle sucked," he says. "I was dying from office life. I started dreaming of how to get out of computers."
He began reading and writing poetry, and slowly realized how he was going to escape the clutches of yuppiedom. "I wanted to touch people's lives, to remedy the fact that when I was 21, there was no one who said, 'Hey, you're good at this, and this is how you can use it to contribute to society,'" he says.
Silverberg quit his job and enrolled in the Academy of Coach Training in Edmonds. He's been a life coach since 1999. "It's an amazing learning curve, how to get past someone's demons," he says. "When I coach, my clients' fear of success is way higher than their fear of failure. I see where they get used to falling short. It's like, 'Wow, I can have an extraordinary life?'"
Mikaela and Neah play just once over spring break; most of the girls don't play at all. It shows in their first match after the break, against Skyline. Though the Beavers have Hana back, her game carries rust, and the girls play tentatively in a 7-2 loss. The next match, against Woodinville, is critical. With only four matches to go, the season hangs in the balance for the 5-3 squad. As the match begins, a group of boys walk up and watch the proceedings. "Damn," one boy says, noticing the skirts and shapely legs. "Look at all the hot girls."
When Julia disapproves of his leering, the boy tells her to shut up and throws an empty water bottle at her, hitting her in the back. "Is this actually a match?" the boy asks.
"Yes," Julia replies.
"Then why is it so damn slow?"
It's an impolite observation, but not incorrect. Tennis players can be divided into two rough groups: those occupied with hitting the ball and those occupied with where to hit the ball. The Ballard girls are caught somewhere between the two, and Silverberg desperately wants to move them into the latter. To that end, he has exhorted them all season to go for their shots, to connect with their bodies, even showing them a few yoga moves, to mixed reactions. "A lot of times I'll ask for deep knee bends, torquing bodies—but they'll be self-conscious," he says.
One of the principles that Silverberg has the most difficulty teaching the girls is also the most basic. The split step—a small, anticipatory hop onto the toes that primes the body to make a quick move in any direction—is the foundation of any number of sports, and central to tennis. A tennis player doesn't know in which direction she'll have to move, only that she will likely have to, and wants to set herself up as quickly as possible to prepare for her own shot. The split step, though intrinsically reactive, is a movement of aggression, and most of the Ballard players simply watch their shots and wait flat-footed.
"That's the other big difference: Guys are taught to initiate," Silverberg says. "But you tell girls to make something happen instead of reacting, and that doesn't jibe with what they've been told."
One of the few girls besides Hana who will take the initiative is No. 2, Kiana Kobayashi, a diminutive but savvy player who enjoys shot-making and fights for every point. "I don't freak out like all the other players in tennis," she says. "They get angry and impatient. I just don't really care when I miss, because it's just one point, and I don't get super happy when I win, either. I just try to stay even."
Kiana has yet to lose a league match and will finish the season with the best record on the team, which she attributes to psychology, not physiology. "I don't think I'm even that good of a tennis player," she says with a bashful smile. "I just think I have good mental skills. Everyone ends up getting nervous in tennis, but I tell myself not to get nervous and have fun."
The boys tire of watching tennis and move on. When asked why she humored the boy who threw the bottle, Julia shrugs. "He's usually not a huge idiot," she says. "He just says dumb stuff to try and be funny. But that's what all guys are like, right?"
"It's about attention from guys," explains Neah, who observed the exchange. "Even if you don't like them, even if they're annoying, you can't tell them to fuck off because you want their attention."
As the Woodinville match progresses, Silverberg paces back and forth along the fence. "I feel like an expectant father," he says through gritted teeth. "It's really close."
It doesn't help that Natasha misses the match to work on her senior project, pressing Julia into emergency singles duty (she loses in straight sets). Mikaela then plays tentatively and loses the first set of her match 6-1. She sulks over to the fence to talk to Silverberg, letting out a long, frustrated sigh.
"You're doing good," Silverberg says. "You can do it. Believe. Try to hit deeper and pull her out wide. Just take it one point at a time."
Mikaela immediately wins the first game of the second set. "See?" Silverberg crows. "Permission to take risks has results in life." He leans his head back and shouts to the sky, "You can't get it wrong!"
Mikaela wins the next two sets 6-0, 6-0. "I was tight and mad at myself after the first set," she says. "Aaron helped. He said to loosen up, relax, and believe in yourself. I was like, this is my set, I'm going to win. And I did."
She laughs. "That's so cheesy."
Going into doubles, the Beavers are tied 3-3, and Silverberg rubs his temples. "This one match is going to turn me into an alcoholic," he says.
The first doubles team, Neah and senior No. 4, Lucie Goodwin, win the first set easily but lose the second. After an umpteenth unforced error gives Woodinville the second set, Silverberg throws his hands in the air. "They're collapsing," he moans. "Just collapsing."
Silverberg calls Neah and Lucie to the fence. But before Silverberg can get a word of advice out, Neah cuts him off. "Are you encouraging when you do that?" she barks, flailing her arms in an angry mimic. "No! And did you encourage us after we won the first set? No! That's why we lost."
The force of Neah's rebuke makes Silverberg take a surprised step backward. "That sounds more like a reprimand, not a request," he says.
"Well, I'd just appreciate it if you didn't do that," Neah replies, her eyes still fierce. "It doesn't help when we lose and we see you going like this." She flings her arms again.
"This is not personal," Silverberg hisses. "This is about tennis. What about you? Have you shown any emotion on the court at practice? I'm a human being. I'm not perfect. Am I allowed to make a mistake?"
All three doubles teams end up losing, and Silverberg feels the season slipping away. He gives the girls the next day off. "What am I going to do, beat them to a pulp?" he says. "These girls, they're not easy to coach. They did a lot of passive stuff, playing all these games, but I'm limited to a group interaction. There are proprieties of being a male coach with women.
"Neah's blowup, I don't know what that was," he continues. "It hurt. She's been princesslike a lot of the year. I haven't enjoyed that. I don't need prissy behavior. I'm out there trying to do my fucking job. I'd like to hear them say thank you."
Silverberg turns up his palms. "I'm still trying in small amounts to give them life coaching, but I got them at the end of their careers," he says. "They're already one foot out the door."
Following the Woodinville loss, Silverberg asks the girls if they're giving 100 percent. Not really, the girls reply.
"That's the difference between men and women," Silverberg says blithely. "Boys are totally competitive. You never have to worry about them giving effort."
The coach's remark strikes a nerve with the girls, who have become increasingly put off by his smug, supercilious demeanor. "That's bullshit," Mikaela says. "What a ridiculous generalization."
But the truth is most of the girls joined the team to avoid competition. Mikaela was a competitive gymnast who stopped because she wanted to have a life instead. Lucy plays for the Ballard soccer team; Kiana quit that team because it got "too intense." Julia's sport of focus is volleyball. Natasha dropped out of the junior tennis circuit to concentrate on school.
"I think Aaron gets frustrated because he thinks tennis should be the No. 1 priority for us," Mikaela says. "And it's not, for any of us."
Indeed, tennis is just one of many activities that occupy the girls' lives. Most of them take AP classes and boast grade point averages well north of 3.0. As senior-class president, Mikaela is responsible for planning the upcoming prom. Flora is the editor of the school newspaper. Neah is one of Ballard's valedictorians, headed to Gonzaga University on a partial academic scholarship (she missed an early week of practice to carry out her senior project, Darfur Awareness Week). And then there's wondering about college, which Neah admits takes up most of her quiet moments. "The whole becoming-an-adult thing, it's scary, knowing you have to make your own decisions and be responsible for yourself," she says.
In fact, tennis would be a perfect respite if not for the matches. "Playing a tennis match isn't something you look forward to," Neah explains. "You sit in class all day knowing you're not going to be able to go home and relax after school because you have to go play a match up to two hours long and you're all alone, no one can help you. It's so much mental stress."
On match days, Neah doesn't relish the competition. Instead, she says, "I look forward to snacks."
Silverberg confesses that despite his Zen sensibilities, he isn't always able to keep his frustrations or expectations in check. "At times, I'm doing very well," he says. "Other times, I'm not. I have breakdowns. I'm not perfect."
But what upsets the girls most is Silverberg's aloofness. Try as both parties might, they just can't seem to connect. When the girls can't make tennis-related activities, Silverberg remarks how well-rounded the girls are. When they pass on more practice, he responds that they're empowered to make that decision. The girls typically interpret such exchanges as Silverberg belittling them. "When people talk to you like you're lower than them, it doesn't make you feel good," Neah says.
It also doesn't help that Silverberg has pushed the girls into a fund-raising campaign, the fruits of which most of them won't get to enjoy. In an e-mail he sent to the team, he itemized what the money would go toward, which included windscreens for the school courts, uniforms, and equipment. The final item, to the girls' collective exasperation, was "coach's supplement."
This annoyed even the most equitable girls. "He's always saying he could be making so much more money doing something else," Kiana says. "Well, go get another job, then. It makes us feel like we're wasting his time. It disrespects us."
By late April, Silverberg and the girls seem to reach an unspoken agreement: They won't make his life miserable if he leaves them alone. During practice, each time Natasha hits a ball into the net, she picks another one out of the ball cart, something that drives every tennis coach nuts. Silverberg tells her to pick up the balls on her court, so that she doesn't accidentally step on one and injure herself. Natasha calmly hits another ball into the net and pulls a new one from the cart.
"They take as much good direction as a bunch of cats," Silverberg says darkly. "Boy, they give me attitude. I wish they'd be like this with other teams. They kick my ass way worse than their opponents."
Silverberg pulls the door handle to the gym. "Who locked the gym door, goddammit?"
"Lan-guage," Neah says in a singsong voice.
Silverberg stalks around the corner, looking for a way in. "For me, the season is over in the sense of the sharpness of it," he says.
But against Roosevelt, Silverberg unveils a new outlook. "It should be fine," he says of the match. "I'm not really worried. I've realized that if I don't care, they'll play really well. When I start tightening up, they do, too. It's the new Zen style of coaching: It's cool, man."
Silverberg's newfound calm can't compensate for Kiana's unexpected absence, however, and with all but Neah playing out of position, the singles split 3-3. After Lucie loses, she locks herself in her car for a good 20 minutes, nearly breaking into tears. When she finally emerges, the doubles matches have started. "It was basically the worst match of my life," she says. "And [my opponent] wasn't good, which makes it worse."
She plops her chin into her hands. "I'm really depressed about how bad I am at tennis."
"Lucie!" Flora admonishes.
"Who cares?" Neah offers. "We're graduating."
"I care," Lucie says. "And that's probably why I lose. I care too much, and I psych myself out."
The girls pile onto a small set of bleachers to watch the doubles. Julia and Zoe pin down a win to put the Beavers up 4-3, and Hana and Lucy take their first set easily. "I'm feeling better than Woodinville," Silverberg says.
But Hana and Lucy lose the next two sets, and Mikaela and Natasha lose in straight sets, giving Roosevelt the match. The Beavers drop their next match to Inglemoor 7-2, their worst loss of the season, to sink to 5-6. Yet the girls aren't disheartened. "I like how we all stayed and cheered," Flora says. "That didn't happen last year. Actually, this is the closest our team has ever been."
"It's still definitely cliquey, but I get along better with the girls," Hana agrees. "We all have a common, um, interest. We've bonded over it."
the last week of the season, Silverberg sits the team down in a circle before practice and asks what they learned. "It doesn't have to be about tennis," he reminds them.
Even so, the girls offer pieces of tennis wisdom. "I learned to get low on my shots"; "I learned to control my volleys"; "Fast back, easy out"; "Dance!"
"I learned that I knew nothing about teenage girls and now I know even less," Silverberg says.
The girls laugh brightly. "I learned that our team is really funny when we're all together," Hana says, and the girls murmur in agreement.
"And I learned that getting really attached to winning really hurts and that getting close to you guys meant letting go of that," Silverberg says.
As the team gears up for practice, Silverberg grows reflective. "I probably pressed a little bit early in the season," he says. "We were doing really well, and I wanted to keep it going. It was important to me, but it wasn't important to them. This was their last chance to be kids, and they wanted to hold on to that."
Though the season didn't go as he planned, Silverberg harbors no bitterness. "I'm proud of them," he says. "They've gotten the max out of their high-school experience, by not only being good students but also by being good friends and challenging themselves. They were constantly trying to figure out how to have a rich life. Those girls are going places in life, even Neah. I have no clue whether she really respects me or appreciates what I've done this year, but she's a sharp girl and a damn fine competitor.
"I applaud the girls for putting relationship building first," he continues. "They taught me to rely on friendships and relationships, and to trust that over any kind of competition in life."
Those friendships, Silverberg would be happy to learn, have a way of encouraging personal growth. The night after the Beavers beat Juanita, Neah and Mikaela head to a Ballard boys' soccer game. On the way, Mikaela tells Neah that she has "an issue." "You're a complainer," Mikaela says. "You should work on that."
"That's not very nice," Neah replies. "It doesn't feel good to have someone point out your flaw and pick at it."
"Hey, I'm just telling you before someone else does."
"I don't think I complain any more than other people," Neah says of the exchange. "And they're about legitimate things. But I guess it's good to hear it from her."
The morning of her last high-school match, against league leader Redmond, Neah wakes up to blue skies and birds chirping and feeling excited to play. She spends the day at school recruiting students to come out and watch the match. "It's amazing," she says of her impending graduation. "I'm glad I'm getting out of here, but when you think about all the time you've invested into friendships, that only one or two will last...it's hard to think that we'll never be out here again with these girls."
The Beavers play well, but Redmond clinches a deceptively close 5-4 win by taking five of the six singles matches (only Hana wins) and capping an undefeated season before emptying the bench for doubles. Ballard finishes 6-7 for the year, 4-6 in the conference: the best season of the seniors' careers. When the final match wraps up, the team hangs around, chatting with friends and parents, gobbling up pizza ordered from Papa John's. The day before, Neah received an e-mail from Gonzaga, asking her to fill out a questionnaire that will help the school choose her freshman classes for her. "I'm like, I don't want to deal with this right now," she says. "But then I realized I don't ever want to deal with this! I just signed for $20,000 in student loans. That's on my account. I have no idea how to pay off a federal loan or balance a checkbook."
Neah takes a bite of Mikaela's pizza and laughs softly as she watches the sun sink below the tree line. "Ha," she says. "It'd better be fun."