Coach Dan led his team out of the locker room, into the long narrow corridor leading to the school’s basketball court, and for the first time began to feel anxiety over the demonstration. Double-J, as usual, had been as insightful as he had been tactless – this demo was an important, perhaps critical, moment for the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Stewart Johnson, the school’s athletic director and assistant principal, had secured enough funding in the coming year for transportation, equipment maintenance, and the fencing team’s largest expense, laundry, but had bluntly warned Dan about the team’s future.
With Myles and the other graduations last spring, you say you’re down to, what, TEN? Dan had chosen to nod, rather than repeat the overoptimistic guess. Myles was your superstar, but now that he’s gone your fencing team looks like a debate club. Dan had dismissed the urge to remind Stu that Bark Bay didn’t have a debate club. You’re a fringe sport, Dan, and budget cuts are coming next spring, we all know it. If you still had a couple dozen team members, I can go to bat for you, help keep your funding. But TEN?
The corridor ended in a large doorway at the northwest corner of the court. Dan saw the cheerleading squad at the center of the court, and motioned for his students to stop. “We’re not on until they’re done — wait here.” He looked out across the polished wood floor, saw the student body assembled by class (seniors and juniors on the north end, sophomores and freshman along the south) among the long wooden rows of collapsible benches, and even from his limited vantage point saw the unmistakable plaintive look of the captive audience.
“Tonight’s homecoming, isn’t it?” Dan already knew the answer to his own question, assumed his students did as well, but felt the urge to keep engaged with his students.
Annie nodded. “We’re playing the Academy tonight.”
Double-J snorted. “Guess that means we all have to commit suicide if we lose.” He paused, waited for everyone’s confused stares, then laughed dismissively.
Dan stared back out across the court, his mind returning in its boredom to the memory of Stu’s warning. Twenty-four students, at a school with graduating classes of just over a hundred? At the team’s zenith last year, when triple-sport athlete Myles Glosurrio’s campaign for the state epee championship made headlines in the Bark Bay Beacon, he had at most seventeen who attended practice regularly. Three years ago when he’d started the team, his only annual goal was to have the team survive for another year. Last year had exceeded his wildest dreams, and gave him the hope that fencing would become not a sport, but an institution at Bark Bay. But with Myles and four other seniors graduating, and a number of returning students wavering in their enthusiasm for the sport, a void had been created and would need to be filled in order for the team to survive. Twenty-four? That wasn’t a goal, it was a mirage.
The idea for today’s demonstration had come at the end of Stu’s warning. Give me ten minutes, at the end of a football rally – let me introduce the team, say we’re looking for new blood, then have my two best guys go at it for a few touches. From across his desk, Stu had looked back with the skepticism of a disbelieving judge, but fortunately had not required much additional convincing.
He saw movement across the court. The marching band, assembled on the east end, rose from their aluminum seats, brass instruments raising, blaring. Beyond the band was a large stage, raised several feet above court level and running along the length of the east end. A set of portable aluminum benches had been positioned on the stage to seat the school’s football team, their jerseys hanging like drapes on their padless bodies. The west end, near the entry to the locker rooms where Dan and his students now stood waiting, was occupied by the eighth grade students, invited for the perceived importance of the evening’s athletic contest.
The band’s performance ended abruptly, as a cheerleader, standing behind a microphone stand at the center of the court, pleaded with her fellow students (you don’t spell out S-P-I-R-I-T until the second time we ask Who’s got spirit, OK?). The stand had been placed directly on top of a cartoonish image of a flannelled lumberjack, sneering with menace as he wielded an axe over his woolen-capped head; a cord ran from the bottom of the stand and disappeared into the sea of band chairs. A few feet to the left, arms folded across his pinstriped chest, Principal Stephens smiled and looked approvingly at the upperclassmen section.
“They’re not serious, are they?” Annie making no attempt to hide her annoyance. Dan turned, smiling, patted her on the shoulder, then realized his hand didn’t seem to have to reach down as far as it had last year to perform the same action. Today was the first time he had seen her since spring, and in preparing the squad for the demo he had not paid much attention to her; his eyes quickly scanned her frame.
“You been working out?”
Annie nodded, her pony-tail bobbing. “Jogging. Some push-ups. Lots of time at Gandy’s gym, really.” She looked up at Dan. “My goal’s to make States this year.”
“States?” She was five months from her first competition.
“Let’s see how you do at the Academy scrimmage first.” He looked over at Rune, standing next to Annie. “You’re coming to the scrimmage, right?”
“I dunno.” Rune quickly glanced back at the court, as if looking for a distraction.
Dan raised his chin, remembering that he needed to call Gavy, the coach at the Academy, about the scrimmage she was scheduling in November. Transportation would be an issue – the Academy was an hour away, and he wasn’t foolish enough to ask Stu about bussing the team to a practice. But he was going to accept Gavy’s invitation, would find some way to get at least Rex and Annie there (her brother was an Academy student, if he remembered correctly), and if he could convince Double-J to come he’d have a second car in addition to his tiny sedan. His students needed to compete against the Academy’s, for their individual development – certainly not for the school’s sake, for while the public Bark Bay High School competed fairly evenly with the private Academy school in most sports, fencing was a different matter. The sport had long been an institution at the Academy – they gave fencing scholarships, for crying out loud – and met the graduation requirement for four-year participation in at least one team sport. For all his bluster with Gavy, Dan knew his team could never threaten the Academy’s dominance of the regional fencing circuit, but they could certainly compete, and grow from that experience.
Across the court, the cheerleading squad, apparently satisfied with the s-p-i-r-i-t shown by the student body, completed their routine with an intensity that seemed a defiant response to the perfunctory applause of the student body. The band blared into action again, as Dan stepped forward from the doorway, waving his students to follow him to the edge of the court.
He looked over his students as they formed the line he had indicated at the edge of the eighth-grade section. Double-J looked to be scanning the crowd with bemusement, while Rex stood stiffly, with an air or nervousness that the coach had never before seen in him. He could not have chosen two more distinctive personalities for the exhibition bout – short, compact Double-J, aggressive and fearless, matched against long, lean Rex, whose style was more deliberate but just as effective. To their right, Annie and Rune whispered a conversation in each other’s ear. The band’s trumpet section erupted, causing Rune to lean closer to Annie, who put her left arm around Rune’s shoulder. Double-J tapped Coach Dan on the shoulder, nodded toward the end of the line. “Wonder what Myles would say.”
“My friend, you’re good at many things, but discretion is not one of those. Your point, please?”
“Myles had a lot to say about Annie and me last year.”
“As team captain, he felt it was his duty to look out for the welfare of all team members, my friend.”
“Whatever.” Double-J’s tone had regained its typical contempt. “Seems to me, you need a new captain who’ll do an equally good job managing the team’s – affairs.”
Coach Dan nodded, but did not speak a reply.