Should auld acquaintance be forgot
June 30, 2010 | MIT Athletic Fields | Boston, Massachusetts | by Stephanie Holt
As Melbourne sank into a slough of perfect footy weather – cold, wet, unpredictable – we were sheltering from the smarting sunshine and exhausting humidity of a Boston heat wave, elbow-deep in boxes and bags and bubble wrap, packing away a year-long expat adventure. We’d recently discovered that the day our visas expired was the day Boston’s 12-year-old Aussie Rules club would host its first ever tournament.
We wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Boston’s Lady Demons have been the kind of home-away-from-home for us that overseas Aussie Rules clubs are for so many ? not just for Aussie expats, but for an idiosyncratic mix of sports-loving newcomers and passers-through. A lifeline for our daughter, Lydia, and a wonderful experience for her footy-mad parents, we’d traversed the continent with the Lady Dees – from Austin, to Philadelphia, to Montreal – and we’d seen the team expand from the seven teammates Lydia joined on the cusp of the USAFL National Tournament last October, to the fourteen-and-counting American women who now pull on the red and the blue, and proudly sport T-shirts declaring “Kick like a girl. Score like a lady”.
The Lady Dees had set the ball rolling, organising women’s teams from Montreal and New York and a few assorted ring-ins to join them. Competitors on the field, off the field these women are collaborators, co-conspirators, prepared to do whatever it takes to get a game and spread the word about this sport they’ve come to love.
The schedule was due to kick off at 10, with three competition games for the women – teams of nine, two halves – before a full-length men’s game between Boston and the visitors, and an “all-in” women’s game to conclude. But come 10 o’clock, the last of the players are still drifting in, a few carloads of visitors are circling the playing fields at MIT looking for somewhere to park, the boys with the temporary goal posts have only just arrived, now busy ramming in star stakes and screwing together lengths of PVC pipe, marquees and shade tents are still going up, and the temperature is soaring toward the mid-90s.
As for me, I’m embroiled in a series of texts and phone calls – rapidly devolved from concise to cursory to curt – with the husband. He’d collected Lydia’s visiting Australian friend Pepi from her hotel less than a mile away but an hour later is still to find us. It’s a nervous wait – Pepi, a gifted bluegrass fiddler, has been spending the past few weeks at music camps throughout the States and Lydia, remembering long-ago footy games at St Kilda Park Primary School, had offered Pepi’s services to the team.
The Lady Dees warm up, getting pre-game instructions from playing coach Emily. Kristina’s bouncing around in excitement, pumped after a sparring session that morning – not an admission that impresses her coach. The risk of tiredness, let alone injury, hadn’t crossed Kristina’s mind. “I was supposed to be in Puerto Rico!” she bubbles, but, like us, she’s changed holiday plans to make sure she’s here.
Like her teammates Emily, Nikki and Eileen, Kristina is fresh from the USAFL’s national training camp and the news that these four Boston girls have been selected for the US Freedom’s national squads.
Beside them, Carrie, Lisa and Alysha are kitting up for the first time. Carrie, a self-described “longtime fan” who’s taken the plunge and joined her friends on the team, is eager but nervous. Lisa, who first turned up at training a few weeks ago, emanates relaxed confidence and anticipation. But the one I’m really looking forward to watching is Alysha. A regular at training for most of the season, she’s learning the game from scratch and doesn’t give much away (of her job as a corrections officer, she’d only allow that it’s not as interesting as you’d think). But there’s something about her. The kind of something that catches the eye of old blokes with skin-cancer-clotted faces and gnarled fingers leaning over the fence at country ovals pointing to the 15-year-old who’s just run out with the ressies. Lydia’s spent the morning prepping me. “She’s improved so much. She’s going to be amazing. Wait till you see her play. I’m so excited …”
The Boston girls head out for the first game, against the powerhouse of Montreal, as I head for the scoreboard to make myself useful. But it’s a different Boston from the one well-beaten a few months ago – more players, more experience, more at stake.
The game starts fast but ragged, a strong wind coursing the length of the oval leaves balls hanging, kicks overshot. And if that’s not confusing enough, there are several Boston girls in Montreal colours making up the numbers.
Ten minutes into the game, Kristina goes down with a leg injury. She’ll watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines, far from the palm trees and gently lapping waves of a Puerto Rican beach. There’ll be no rotations for her sweltering teammates, but they keep advancing and build a nice halftime lead, just as Chris finally turns up with Pepi. He confides with a grim sigh that (a) he doubts she’s had much sleep, (b) her mother is terrified that a footy injury could mean she’ll never play the violin again, and (c) her conversation opened with a cheery “So what are the rules again?” She stands beaming in cut-off denim shorts and sneakers, taking it all in. “Wow, this is really serious!”
Captain Jen, navigating the dedicated tedium of ACL-recovery, is overseeing it all. Her face falls, fleetingly, when she realises how ill-equipped Pepi is, before sending her out in search of spare shorts and borrowed boots for the next game.
In the second half, the Lady Dees’ scoring stalls. Montreal is being driven by the Legault sisters, their strong runs downfield culminating in penetrating wind-assisted kicks. Montreal’s Angels nudge ahead just in time to take the game 29 to 24 as the siren brings a tight contest to a close. Boston’s new girls have acquitted themselves well. “I didn’t sleep at all last night,” a smiling Carrie confesses, gesturing to the field she’s just left. “I was so worried I would be useless out there, but now …”
No sooner are they off the field than half the Boston girls are pulling on guernseys again, subbing for Montreal and New York. The heat hasn’t abated, but neither has their enthusiasm. Emily’s playing in the centre for New York. With a sinking heart, I see Pepi sent out as her Montreal opponent. But as good as Emily is, Pepi sprints after her, keeping just close enough. “Well deerrn, Peh-peee” calls the Montreal coach, as she’s finally able to get hands to ball and handpass it on. If there’s one thing that sets the Aussies and the neophytes apart it’s this, an Australian’s intuitive and unerring awareness of the live ball, the impulse to make a grab for it and keep it moving. After a couple more handpasses, Pepi hazards a kick, and it’s not a bad kick, and I relax that neither she, nor her homeland, have been embarrassed.
By the time Jen honks the final siren, the scoreboard is showing Montreal 42, and as for New York– well I’ve learned what that old cliché “not troubling the scorer” feels like. But we’ve seen these New York women play three times now, and there’s no doubting their improvement. Kicks are smoother, the drive forward steadier, the tackling more purposeful, quicker.
With Boston now up against New York, three quarters of the players run straight back into the fray, into the heat, while those on the sidelines are huddling in improvised shade, chugging on drink bottles, squinting across the field. Numbers have swelled – friends, family, even a few intrigued passersby stopping to watch. I’ve lost sight of Pepi, but spot her in a little shade tent, curled on the ground behind a baby stroller, its seat nursing a bag of oranges, fast asleep.
Scoring’s slow enough to let me explain the play to some nearby spectators. “It’s really fast!” comments one, mesmerised, before wondering aloud if there are many injuries. Wary of deterring a potential recruit, I resist pointing to Jen and Kristina, nursing theirs nearby.
If the first game let the new players settle their nerves, this one is letting them shine. And, as promised, Alysha has come into her own. She’s working the half-backline a treat, positioning herself beautifully, her tackling determined, her kicks strangely flat but effective. She’s spotting midfield leads like an old hand, and honouring them even better. I’m just wondering how her marking’s developed when she takes a strong overhead grab deep in defence. I’ve just decided the one thing I haven’t seen from her is a good smother, when she runs at an opponent about to centre a ball from the wing and throws herself across the boundary, just as the ball gets airborne.
Lydia’s had a quietish game – it’s not a day for marking forwards based in the goalsquare – but she’s worked the forward line diligently with teammate Sandy, and as the game draws to its end a rousing “Lydia Holt!” goes up from the broadcast tent courtesy of match caller Bill Robert of Boston public TV’s Stateside Footy. A strong grab topped off with a good goal. It’ll be Boston’s last, in a tidy 20 to 2 win.
The players spill off, hot, bothered, and jubilant. There’ll be no more play for the women. Those not dragooned into umpiring duty settle in to watch the men’s game. Lydia starts as a goal ump but sends her Dad out at halftime to take over. Perhaps it’s apt: Chris gets to spend his last official day as Harvard’s Visiting Chair of Australian Studies by grading an Aussie Rules prac.
Finally it’s off to the nearest bar to recover. I offer some directions to one of the Montreal boys, exploiting my last days as a Boston local, and get rewarded soon after with a charming thank you before he excuses himself, explaining “I must go now and change my undergarments. They are very sweaty from playing the footy…” I decide that swoon-inducing Quebecois English is sadly lacking in the outer at the ’G. Make mental note to put that in Andy D’s suggestion box.
The player awards are handed out – Emily gets the Lady Dees’ MVP; Alysha, the Breakout Game – and we start a slow round of final goodbyes. Lydia gets a cuddle from her adoptive ‘big sis’ Andi, a hug from Jen and Aimee, a pep talk from Emily. It turns out Emily has already put in a good word for her with a coach in Melbourne.
“There’s always be a home away from home for you in Melbourne,” I tell player after player, as I dawdle my way reluctantly to the exit, clutching the absurdly large pile of Lady Dees T-shirts destined for unsuspecting friends back home. Should auld acquaintance be forgot, keep your eyes on the red and the blue …