See part 1 for disclaimers. NOTE: New e-mail address!

As always, thanks to my beta readers Alina, Kimly, MyWarrior, and Wendy.

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Take Time Out

Part 12

By RJ

DoctorJ22@home.com

March, 1999

No part of this text may be reproduced in whole, or in part, without the express consent of the author.

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Chapter 39

Robin lay snuggled in Jess’s arms in front of the fireplace, both women watching the fire, thinking about how wonderful this Christmas was turning out to be.

"Jess?"

"Hmmm?"

"Have you thought much about what you want for the future…I mean, not for the forever future, but just the near future?" Robin asked with hesitation.

"Are you talking about my career future or my personal life future?"

"Well, both, I guess."

Jess thought for a moment. "Well, for my career future, I’d like to win enough games this year to make it into the NCAA’s, and have then have a great recruiting year." Jess paused, thinking beyond this first year. "I guess every coach’s ultimate goal is to win a national championship, but you just don’t get there overnight. I just hope I’m still at NOU working at it 5 years from now."

"Do you think you’ll move onto a bigger program if you’re successful at NOU?"

Jess held Robin tighter and kissed the top of her head, sensing some insecurity in the young woman. "I don’t have any particular aspirations to coach at a powerhouse like UCONN, or Tennessee, but I certainly would listen to any offers that might come my way in the future." She tilted her head to look into Robin’s eyes. "Does that worry you?"

"No… well, I guess it does a little… OK, a lot. But I know it comes with the job, and I would be so happy for you if you got a chance to do what you’ve dreamed about all your life."

Jess smiled at that. "What about you?" she asked. "What do you want for your career future?"

Robin laughed lightly and replied, "Tenure - what every assistant professor wants! But seriously, I love Oregon, and I’m here as much for the things I can do outside of work as for the things I do at NOU. I’d be happy to get tenure here and stay for a long time."

"Is there anywhere else you’ve ever thought about living?"

"Hmmm…" Robin thought. "There’s nowhere I’m dying to move to, but I guess there are some other places I would consider living, like Montana, or Colorado, or New Mexico, or Northern Arizona…"

"Nothing in the east?"

"I’d be really surprised if I ever found myself east of the Mississippi River again. I suppose I could live in Wisconsin or Minnesota, but that might be too close to my mother for my sanity!"

Jess chuckled. "I don’t really see myself going east either. I think the west just kind of gets into your blood."

Robin fidgeted a little bit and cleared her throat. "And what about the future of your personal life?"

Jess kissed Robin again and replied, "Mmmm, I’m very happy with my personal life at the moment." She pulled away a little and looked into Robin’s eyes again. "I think things have been a lot better for me lately…I…I’m feeling more comfortable about who I am, and what it means for my job. And…and I’ve realized that I want you to be a part of my life, and I can’t keep that part completely separate from the rest of my life. I don’t want to keep it separate."

Robin felt the tears spring to her eyes. She buried her face in the tall woman’s neck, trying not to turn into a blubbering idiot. Jess held her tightly and soothed her with soft words of reassurance.

Finally, Robin looked at Jess with red eyes. "I was afraid there was never going to be a place for me in your life, Jess. What made you change your mind?"

"Oh Robin, I had to find a place for you – couldn’t you see how much I needed you?" She looked sincerely into the young woman’s green eyes. "I just had to step back and open my mind a little bit. When I did, I realized that everyone wasn’t out to get me. They weren’t all looking for some weakness or flaw that they could exploit. In fact, most people I come in contact with are actually on my side! I don’t know why I always had this feeling that I was alone in everything."

"You’re not alone, Jess," Robin said, smiling up at the coach. "There are a lot of people at NOU that want very much for you to succeed."

Jess smiled back with a little twinkle in her eye and replied, "I’ve even found a supporter in California – from another coach, of all people."

Robin looked questioningly at the coach. "Really? Who would that be?"

"An old friend of yours, as a matter of fact," Jess replied with a sly grin on her face. "I ran into Sara Graebel when I was recruiting at a high school tournament on our last trip there."

Robin looked startled, thinking about her own conversation with Sara and hoping that it didn’t come up when Jess and Sara were talking. She didn’t want the coach to think that she had betrayed her confidence.

"How did you meet her?"

"She came up and introduced herself to me. We had a really nice talk – just about basketball…recruiting…working at NOU. We even went out for coffee afterward. She’s really nice – I can see why you two were friends when she was here."

Robin smiled at the memory of time spent with Sara at NOU. "Yeah, she was a lot of fun to be around."

Jess watched the fire dying down to glowing embers. "When we got back from that road trip and I had that run-in with LaTeisha, I decided I really needed somebody to talk to about what I was going through. It had been so easy to talk to Sara that I just decided to bite the bullet and ask her if I could talk to her about some personal things."

Robin looked really startled at that. Jess was simply not the type of person to reach out to someone else for help with personal problems. Yet she was incredibly proud of the coach for being willing to do it. I guess that’s a sign of how much our relationship means to her, she realized with an undeniable amount of pleasure.

"So you just called her?"

Jess chuckled. "No, I wasn’t that brave…I e-mailed her." Jess proceeded to tell Robin about the series of e-mails between Sara and her, and how it eased a lot of her fears about her job. "I’m not saying I don’t still feel the need to be discreet, but I’m hoping I can put the paranoia to rest," she said with a self-deprecating grin.

Robin hugged the tall woman tightly and said, "You don’t know how good it makes me feel that you are willing to try so hard to make this work with your job, Jess. You could have just given up, you know."

Jess pulled back and looked intently into green eyes. "No I couldn’t, Robin. I tried, remember? I can’t give up on you…on us."

Robin searched the blue eyes for any sign of doubt, but found only sincerity and promise. She couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her face. "This is the best Christmas ever," she said, leaning in to lightly brush her lips against Jess’s. The coach pulled her tighter and returned the kiss with a passion that promised that the holiday was only going to get better.

 

Chapter 40

January brought the start of the conference season for Jess, and the start of classes for Robin. Conference games were generally played on Thursday and Saturday nights, unless the television schedule dictated a Sunday afternoon game. Since the women alternated their home and away games with the men’s team, Jess was out of town from Wednesday to Sunday just about every other weekend. Robin was teaching every day of the week, which precluded her from taking any long weekends in order to watch an away series. Robin was frustrated at the lack of time she got to spend with Jess, just when she thought their relationship had the chance of settling down. Midway through the season, it was all she could do to suppress her frustration on the few occasions she did get to spend some quality time with the head coach. Jess could sense that something was wrong, but she was helpless to do anything about it. At the halfway point, they were scheduled to play their bitter rivals, the Oregon Ducks, at home on Friday night, which would at least give her a rare two-day weekend free.

Jess’s team had continued their preseason success, and had won all their home games and at least gained a split on the road. They stood in third place in the conference, just a game back of Stanford and Oregon. However, Jess was not completely happy with the team’s performance in recent weeks, and she was particularly disappointed in the play of one temperamental point guard. Bennie had been showing up just a little late for a few practices and had been clearly taking the path of least resistance in most drills and scrimmages. Jess had warned her about being late, and tried to push her harder in practice. In games, Bennie had been able to rise to the occasion, but Jess didn’t know how much longer that would last.

Two days before the Oregon game, Jess called her assistants in to her office to see if any of them knew what Bennie’s problem was.

"I don’t know Coach, but I’ve noticed it, too," LaTeisha offered.

"Maybe she’s having problems with school," Pam speculated. "Have we gotten any progress reports back yet?"

"Yes, and while they’re not glowing, she’s not really doing that badly," Jess replied.

"Well, maybe it’s personal then," Jeff said.

"Or maybe this is just her usual style," LaTeisha countered. "Maybe she was just on her best behavior in the beginning of the season to impress the new coaches."

"Hmmm," Jess’s brow furrowed. "I hadn’t really considered that. Maybe I’ll give a call to one of the previous coaches and see what their experience was."

Jess dismissed the assistants from her office and decided to call Sara, who would have been involved in recruiting Bennie, even though she didn’t coach her at NOU. In reality, she was glad to have the excuse to call Sara and talk to her new confidante.

"Hi Sara, this is Jess Peters."

"Jess! How are you doing?"

"Good – how about you?"

"Great – we’re really doing well in our conference play so far. Is everything OK with you and… well… I mean, is everything going OK for you there?" Sara wasn’t sure how comfortable Jess was in talking openly about her and Robin, since they had only discussed relationships in general in their previous e-mail correspondence.

"The job is going OK, and I guess the personal life is going as well as it can for a basketball coach in season that is on the road for half her life," Jess chuckled.

"Don’t I know that!" Sara sympathized. "Char is threatening to find a surrogate partner during the season."

Jess laughed, although she couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of Robin finding a substitute for her under any circumstances.

"Hey, I’m actually calling with a basketball question, not a personal question."

"Sure, what is it?"

"You recruited Bennie Gonzales out of high school, right?"

"Ahhh, Bennie…I sure did. Now there’s a player with unlimited potential."

"No argument about that, but we’re having a little trouble getting her to reach that potential, mostly because she insists on doing the minimum necessary to get by. Does she have a history of that?"

"Oh yeah, that was definitely her rap in high school. I talked to Coach Thompson last year, and he had the same problem with her as a freshman. He said that at the beginning of the year she worked hard, probably because she wasn’t sure if she was going to get a starting position or not. But once she had that sewed up, she definitely slacked off."

"Hmmm…well, I kind of thought that might be the case, but I wanted to make sure before I talked to her about it."

"Well, good luck! Trying to motivate players like that is one of the hardest parts of our job."

"That’s for sure," Jess agreed. "Hey, I’m afraid I need to go, but it was nice talking to you again."

"Sure, no problem. Good luck with the rest of your season!"

"Thanks, you too."

Jess hung up the phone and thought about how she was going to approach Bennie. She knew one thing – showing up late to practices was not going to be tolerated.

 

 

That afternoon’s practice followed the same pattern as previous ones, with Bennie showing up about 10 minutes into the warm-up and stretching time. Jess stood on the side of the court, giving the point guard a look that would have dropped her in her tracks, if she’d had the guts to look back at the coach. Instead, she took a place as far away from the coach as she could get and joined the stretching routine. Jess deliberately walked around to where Bennie was hiding out, and simply stood there watching. Throughout the practice, Jess made a point to be standing near Bennie, clearly making the point guard nervous, but also giving her little opportunity to slack off. At the end of practice, Jess called the team together.

"You all know that this is a very big game for us this Friday. If we win, we have the chance to be tied for the conference lead going into the second half of the season." She saw a few excited smiles appear around the group, but they quickly faded as Jess got serious and her eyes turned to blue chips of ice.

"Unfortunately, not everyone is taking this as seriously as they should. And if there’s one thing I will NOT tolerate, it is someone letting her teammates down. This basketball team may not be the most important thing in your life, but when you are in this gym, it is the ONLY thing in your life." Jess’s glare was directed straight at Bennie, who was looking intently at her shoelaces.

Jess took a deep breath to calm herself. "It appears that we need a little review of some team rules. I expect people to show up on time for practice and games. If I thought the beginning of practice wasn’t important, I wouldn’t make you be here. However…" She walked slowly around the group to stand next to Bennie before she continued. "…since Bennie doesn’t seem to think that the beginning of practice is important for her, she will sit out the first half of Friday’s game. Tara, you’ll be starting at point guard." The look on the players’ faces was one of shock and dismay. They all knew how important Bennie was to the success of their team, and now they were all going to suffer because of her actions.

"Is there anyone else who needs to be reminded of the rules?" Jess looked seriously around the group, most of who quickly looked down when their eyes met. This was not the way that Jess wanted to leave her team after a practice, but they would have another practice before Friday’s game, and she thought that it might do the players good to go home and think about how serious she could be about her team.

"The rest of you can go; Bennie, I’ll see you in my office in 10 minutes." With that, Jess strode off the court, leaving the team talking in hushed tones as they made their way to the locker room.

Ten minutes and 30 seconds later, Bennie was reluctantly knocking on Jess’s door. Jess looked at her watch and sighed. You’d think she might have been a minute early under the circumstances…

"Come on in, Bennie. Have a seat," Jess said, motioning to the chair in front of the desk. Bennie shuffled over and slumped in the seat, not looking up.

Jess sat and looked at the young woman for a few moments, trying to decide on the best approach to take. While she knew that the half-game suspension was necessary for her team rules to have any integrity, she didn’t think that an adversarial approach was going to work with the recalcitrant player.

"Bennie, is there some reason you’ve been showing up late for practice?"

Bennie just shrugged and shook her head no.

"Do you think you work as hard as you can when you are at practice?"

This time, Bennie just shrugged, unwilling to admit that she might be able to try harder.

"What do you think would happen if you tried as hard as you could in every drill? In every scrimmage? Are you afraid you’d get tired? That you wouldn’t have enough left to get through the rest of the practice?"

Bennie’s eyes rose briefly to meet the coach’s, then quickly returned to her lap. She mumbled a very quiet "No."

"Are you afraid that if you put it all on the line that you’ll be opening yourself up to possibly fail?" Jess paused to let that sink in. "A lot of players feel that way, Bennie – that if they just hold something back, then they can say they weren’t trying their hardest if something goes wrong. Is that how you feel?"

Bennie shrugged again, but was obviously taking in something that she hadn’t thought about before.

"Well, I want you to think about that a little, OK? I want you to think about how you can go through your whole life just trying to get by, and then you’ll get to the end of it and what will you say? ‘Whew, I made it?’ Just ‘making it’ isn’t good enough, Bennie. It’s not good enough for you, and it’s not good enough for my team. The only way you can really make sure you don’t fail, is to go out there every day and do your absolute best. Do you understand what I’m saying?"

Bennie finally looked up and quietly said, "I guess so."

Jess smiled just slightly at her, and replied, "Well, you think about it over the next few days, especially while you’re playing the back-up point guard. You’re going to see how much your team needs you, and how much more you can do for your team if you give them everything you’ve got."

Bennie started to get out of the chair, obviously wanting desperately to escape from the coach’s office.

"Sit down, Bennie. There’s one other thing. You need to apologize to your team for coming to practice late. I’d like you to do it tomorrow at the beginning of practice. Do you think you can do that?"

Bennie looked like Jess was asking her to stick needles under her fingernails, but she finally said a reluctant "OK" when she realized the coach really wasn’t giving her a choice.

"Great!" Jess smiled more broadly this time. She got up and walked around her desk, leaning on it just in front of where the player was sitting. "Bennie, you’re a very important part of this team, but I care about you as more than just a player – I hope you know that. If there’s something that’s bothering you or you need to talk to someone about anything, I’m willing to listen, OK?"

Bennie nodded again, although it was clear that she thought the coach was the last person in the world she would go to if she had a problem.

"See you tomorrow, Bennie."

The point guard rushed out of the office, leaving Jess shaking her head and wondering if she’d really made any progress at all. I guess the next week or so should tell. I just hope this doesn’t cost us the game on Friday. Not that I’d change my decision if I knew it would…

 

It was half-time of the Oregon game, and Robin was sitting in her seat feeling frustrated like the rest of the fans. Well, at least half of the fans, since the Duck fans had showed up in force and were easily out-cheering the hometown fans, who had a lot less to cheer about. NOU was down 15 at half-time, the result of turnovers and an ineffective offense without their starting point guard. Tara had been playing her best, but it just wasn’t good enough against Oregon’s experienced backcourt.

Robin slumped in her seat and scowled. "I HATE the Ducks," she muttered to Capi. "And I hate the damn Duck fans, and that damn Duck mascot!"

Capi laughed at her friend’s frustration. "You’ve only lived here three years – how can you hate the Ducks so much?"

"It’s easy! They think they’re so much better than us, and then they go out and prove it every year in almost every sport! Who wouldn’t hate them??"

Capi laughed even harder. "Oh come on. We have a better gymnastics team than they do."

Robin rolled her eyes. "You know they don’t HAVE a gymnastics team, smart-ass!"

"OK, OK, but what about softball and volleyball? We beat them sometimes in those sports. And we’ve even beat them in football every once in awhile."

"Yeah, but there’s only one sport I really care about, and that’s women’s basketball, and I haven’t seen us beat them in the 3 years I’ve been here. And it’s not looking good tonight."

"No, it’s not," Capi agreed. "But things might be different if Bennie was playing. Do you think she’ll play in the second half?"

"I sure hope so. Jess said it was just a half-game suspension, but I’m worried that it might be too late to dig ourselves out of this 15-point hole."

Robin’s premonition turned out to be right, as the Bobcats fought back gallantly in the second half, only to end up losing by 4. The green and yellow clad fans were whooping it up around the arena as the opposing coaches shook hands at the end of the game.

"Ugh! I think I’m gonna throw up!" Robin said, looking around at the celebration. "And Coach Runyan has that smug look on her face – how can Jess even shake her hand?"

"Well, Jess is obviously a lot more gracious than you are," Capi noted, as the tall, dark coach made a point to shake the opposing players’ hands as well before striding off the court to the locker room.

"I don’t know how she does it," Robin replied. "She has more self-control than anyone I’ve ever met. Maybe too much, sometimes."

Capi looked at Robin inquisitively. "What is that supposed to mean? You guys aren’t having problems again, are you?"

Robin sighed. "No, I’m just frustrated because I hardly ever get to see her. And then when we do get to spend time together, I end up picking a fight or pouting over something stupid, just because I’m so frustrated. It’s like a Catch-22. Pretty soon she’s just not going to want to spend time with me, and I won’t blame her."

"Hey, it sounds like you’re feeling way too sorry for yourself," Capi admonished. "Where’s that self-assured, fun-loving woman that I’ve had a crush on for 3 years?"

Robin smiled gratefully at Capi. "If I’m at all self-assured it’s because you’ve done such a good job of building me up, and we both know that crush ended with your first glimpse of a certain sports information director."

"Oh no, you’ll always be my first love," Capi teased. "Everyone else will just have to settle for being second best."

"Well, here comes second best now, so maybe you’d better watch what you say," Robin said in a hushed tone.

Capi blushed as she turned to see Carmen walking their way. The SID smiled broadly at Capi, making her blush even more.

"Yeah, you sure look like you’re settling for second best," Robin said in her best sarcastic tone.

Carmen greeted them both and sat down in the empty seat next to Capi, laying her hand on the tall woman’s thigh in a casual sign of affection.

"Do you two have plans for the night, or could I take you out for a drink?" Carmen asked, leaning forward to look at both women.

"I don’t know, Capi, do you think we’ll get a better offer?" Robin said with mock seriousness.

"Well, there were those two women in the duck bill hats that were giving us the eye earlier…"

Robin couldn’t keep a straight face any longer and burst out laughing. "Oh God, Carmen, please – anything but a Duck fan!"

"I’m not quite sure how to take that comment," Carmen said, feigning a look of hurt.

"It’s OK, honey, she was only kidding," Capi said, patting Carmen on the leg solicitously. "Come on, let’s get out of here and find a bar that isn’t decorated in green or yellow."

The women got up to leave, and Robin saw Jess coming back out from the locker room. "Hang on you guys, let me just go tell Jess what we’re doing. I’ll be right back."

Robin walked up to the coach, who had been intercepted by the Senior Women’s Athletics Administrator. She stood off to the side, waiting patiently until they finished their conversation. As the administrator walked away, Jess turned to Robin with a look of welcome relief. She took a step closer to the smaller woman and wished she could just pull her in for a much-needed hug. That’s what my straight colleagues can do with their partners – it’s just not fair, is it?

"God, that was a hard loss to swallow," Jess said.

"Yeah, but you did pretty well considering you didn’t have your starting point guard for the whole first half. That should make you feel pretty good about the rematch at the end of the season," Robin said optimistically.

"I suppose so, but it’s hard to think about that right now. I guess mostly I want to forget about this game and start looking forward to the second half of the season…and hope that no else finds a need to test the team rules." She looked at Robin hopefully and said, "If you’re not busy you could come over and help me forget…"

Robin’s smile faded a little as she replied, "Well, I told Capi and Carmen I’d go out for a beer with them, but I can tell them to go ahead without me…"

"No, no, you should go," Jess said quickly. "I didn’t know you had plans."

"But Jess, we hardly ever get to see each other, and I can see Capi anytime," Robin protested.

Jess smiled reassuringly at the smaller woman. "Why don’t you go out for one beer with them, and then come over. It will take me that long to finish things up here and get home anyway, OK?"

Robin didn’t look like she was quite convinced, but she acquiesced anyway. "Do you want me to bring anything with me when I come?"

"Just me," Jess said very softly, a half-grin spreading across her face.

Robin blushed furiously and slapped the tall coach on the arm. "And now you expect me to just go out with my friends for awhile?!"

Jess just turned to go and shot another grin over her shoulder while waving good-bye.

 

Robin stayed for the minimum time necessary at the bar with her two friends before heading over to Jess’s. Her repeated glances at the clock resulted in endless teasing about her single-mindedness, but Capi finally urged her to go.

"It’s not like you’re really here with us anyway. And Carmen’s just been dying for a chance to get me alone, so you’d be doing her a favor," Capi said with a wry grin toward the SID.

Carmen rolled her eyes. "It’s true, she’s been resisting all of my charms, but I think she’s just about to give in, and another hour alone with her is all I’ll need."

Robin laughed and smiled gratefully at her friends. "Well, I hope you have as much fun as I’m going to have tonight," she said with a wink.

"Whooo-boy, let’s not go there," Capi said, fanning herself with a menu.

Robin just grinned and gave Capi a hug as she headed out of the bar.

When she arrived at Jess’s, the coach had changed into a pair of sleek black running pants and a black NOU t-shirt, complementing the dark hair and blue eyes. Robin raked her eyes over the tall coach, and walked slowly up to her. Jess’s eyes locked on Robin’s and a smile started to play across her lips.

"Have you been waiting long?" Robin asked softly.

"Just my whole life," Jess replied, taking the small woman in her arms and bending down to kiss her soft lips.

Robin drew back and whispered, "I’m so glad you’re home this weekend. I miss you so much when you’re away."

Jess leaned her forehead on Robin’s. "I miss you, too, but it just makes these times we have together all the more special."

"Do you really have the day off tomorrow?"

"Yeah, I thought the team could use the break, and God knows I could…especially if I can spend it with you."

"Hmmm, we’ll have to see if you earn it or not," Robin said in a sultry voice next to Jess’s ear while she pushed the coach backward toward the couch. Just as the back of her knees hit the couch, Jess spun Robin around and lowered her gently, following quickly to straddle her with arms and knees.

"That sounds like a little challenge," Jess purred. "I think I just may be up to it." Jess took hold of Robin’s wrists and held them above the small woman’s head. Her torso was pinning Robin to the couch, and she started a sweet torture with her lips and tongue. Robin started to writhe beneath her and Jess took both of Robin’s wrists in one hand, her other hand roaming the young woman’s body, caressing and inflaming her senses.

"Jess, please…" Robin panted.

"Please what?" Jess asked without pausing in her ministrations.

"I need to feel you… feel your skin… take these clothes off…"

"So impatient," Jess teased, even as she started unbuttoning Robin’s shirt with her free hand. "Don’t move," she warned as she released the smaller woman’s wrists. Jess quickly stripped off her own clothes, and then returned to the task of removing Robin’s. As she stripped the pants over her feet, Jess knelt back down on the far end of the couch and started kissing her way up Robin’s bare legs. The young woman reached to tangle her hands in Jess’s hair.

"Uh-uh!" Jess said, grabbing her wrists and putting them back over her head before returning to her pleasurable task. Robin groaned and closed her eyes, gripping the material of the couch in her fingers. Jess proceeded to cover every inch of the young woman’s body with soft lips and caressing hands, finally concentrating on the place she wanted it most, and sending Robin over the edge to a place she’d never been before.

"Oh God," Robin breathed as she slowly regained her senses. "What did you just do to me?"

Jess grinned and said, "I hope I just earned the right to spend tomorrow with you."

"Tomorrow, the next day, next week… I think I’m in debt for a long time!"

"Hmmmm, mission accomplished," Jess said as she held the small woman tightly.

Robin managed to repay a little of her debt later that night, and the two women went to sleep exhausted, not rising until late the next morning.

 

Chapter 41

The second half of the season started well for Jess’s team. Bennie was showing up on time, and while she may have still held back a little in practice, she was definitely working harder than she had before. It even seemed to rub off on the rest of the team, and Jess couldn’t have been more pleased with their effort. The result was a four-game winning streak, sweeping the Washington schools on the road, and the Arizona schools at home. In mid February, the team was traveling to the Bay area for the all-important match-up with Stanford. First, though, they had to defeat Cal on Thursday night, and Jess was worried that the team might overlook the Bears in their anticipation of the Stanford game.

As the team was waiting at the airport for the short flight to San Francisco, Jess noticed that Heather had been standing over by the window, staring out at the planes taking off for the last 20 minutes. She looked around to find Chris and saw the young woman talking on the phone, smiling and laughing. She didn’t think too much more about it, and didn’t notice that the two women didn’t sit together on the plane for the first time all season.

On Thursday, the team had a good shoot-around at the Cal arena, which turned out to be a precursor to how the game would go. NOU came out aggressively on defense, and harassed the Cal guards into numerous turnovers. Natalia was dominating inside on offense, and Bennie kept feeding her the ball for easy baskets. The only downside of the half was that Heather had thrown the ball away repeatedly on fast breaks, and was 0 for 6 from the field. At half-time, Jess patted her on the head and told her not to press – just let the game come to her. Heather bit her lip and nodded, not looking up from the locker room floor.

The Bobcats went on to win by 15, a margin that would have been even bigger if Jess hadn’t played the subs for the last 7 minutes. All in all, she thought the game was a great tune-up for the Saturday game with Stanford. She just hoped that Heather would come out of her slump by then, especially since the young woman was so upset by her play that she was crying in the locker room afterward.

On Saturday afternoon, Jess was reviewing some scouting reports for that night’s game when there was a knock on her hotel room door. She went to open it and was surprised to see Heather standing there.

"Hi Heather, what can I do for you?"

"Um… I was wondering… could I come in?"

"Oh, sure," Jess said, stepping aside and waving the young woman inside. Jess walked over to the table where she had been working and pulled a chair up to face hers. The player sat down and looked at her hands that were fidgeting nervously in her lap.

Jess waited for a few moments, and when it appeared that Heather was too nervous to start the conversation, Jess said, "Do you want to talk about the game on Thursday? I know you didn’t play as well as you’d like, but I don’t think you should be too worried about it, Heather. Everybody goes through slumps."

At that, Heather started crying, and Jess thought she had somehow said the wrong thing.

"Hey, it’s nothing to get so upset about," Jess said reassuringly.

"No, you don’t understand," Heather sobbed, leaning her forearms on her legs. "It’s not about the game… I mean, it is, but it isn’t."

Now Jess was really confused, but she decided that she should wait and let the young woman explain before she said anything else wrong. She reached over and rubbed Heather’s back in a soothing motion, waiting for the player to compose herself.

"My life is all screwed up right now, and… and I don’t know who else to talk to… but… well, I thought you might understand because you’re… well, because of you and Dr. Grant."

Jess’s hand flew off Heather’s back like she’d been burned and she sat back in her chair, looking disbelievingly at the young woman. Heather looked up through tear-filled eyes that were pleading for compassion and sympathy. Jess swallowed hard and fought her every instinct that was telling her to run – to deny what Heather had said and end the conversation right there. No, you can’t do that again! You stay right here and give this woman the support she needs!

Jess cleared her throat to buy a little more time to think. "Heather, let’s just back up a little bit. Why don’t you tell me why you think your life is all screwed up." OK, that’s it – don’t deny it but you don’t have to confirm it either.

Heather’s tears flowed harder as she said, "It’s Chris… she… she says there’s someone else and she doesn’t want to be together anymore."

"I see…" Jess thought hard. What in the hell is the right thing to say?? "When did she tell you this?"

"Last Monday. I… I didn’t even know anything was wrong!" Heather wailed.

"Hey, hey…" Jess soothed. Her mind was at war with her body, the latter wanting to reach over and comfort the young woman and the former warning her not to touch the player. The coach tentatively put her hand on Heather’s arm, and the young woman immediately leaned over and started sobbing on Jess’s shoulder. She clumsily patted Heather on the back, and after a few moments the player sat back up and wiped at her eyes.

"I’m sorry… I…"

"No, that’s OK, you don’t have anything to be sorry for," Jess said emphatically. She got up and retrieved some Kleenex from the bathroom, offering it to the young woman whose sobs were beginning to lessen.

"I don’t really know what to say, Heather," Jess offered lamely as she sat back down. "These things are painful, and there’s really nothing I can say that will make you feel better about it. It’s just going to take time."

"But everything was fine between us," Heather protested.

"Hey, you’re so young, Heather… things can change so fast when you’re twenty years old. Chris probably had no intention of finding someone else… sometimes these things just happen, and there’s no good reason for them."

"But… do you think she might change her mind… might come back to me?"

"I don’t know, Heather… it’s possible. Have you talked to her about it?

Heather looked down sadly. "Yeah…she…she said that it’s already over between us…she doesn’t feel the same way anymore. I…I just can’t believe that she won’t change her mind if I could just figure out the right thing to say to her!"

"Sometimes it’s not in your control, Heather. At some point you just need to say to yourself that you did everything you could, and it’s just not your fault if it doesn’t work out. But right now, I think you need to take care of yourself, and do the things you need to do for your own sake."

"Like what?" Heather asked with some skepticism.

"Well, for one thing, you can try to find some success in other aspects of your life, like basketball, for example. Instead of letting this control your thoughts and ruin your game, why don’t you concentrate on the game and let it take your mind off your troubles? I know it’s not that easy, but if you really work at it, I’m sure you have the mental discipline to focus on the game for a couple of hours."

Heather raised her head, looking for the sincerity in Jess’s eyes to match her words, and managed a small smile when she found it there. "Yeah, I guess I could try," she offered softly.

"Why don’t you start tonight, OK? Just give it a try. I believe you can do it, Heather – I really do."

Heather looked hopeful as she got up to leave.

"Thanks, Coach…and thanks for talking with me."

"Anytime, Heather – I mean that."

Jess closed the door behind Heather and leaned back into it, sighing heavily. God, I hope I said the right things.

 

The bus arrived at the hotel to pick the team up for the game, and Jess noticed that Heather looked much better. She sat by herself a few rows behind the coach wearing her headphones, and appeared to be successfully avoiding Chris.

Jess thought about how she might change the substitution pattern to minimize the amount of time that Heather and Chris would be playing together. She didn’t want to change Heather’s starting role because she wanted to show the player that she still had confidence in her. She was a little worried, however, about how long she could leave Heather in such an important game if the young woman wasn’t playing up to her usual potential.

Jess watched the pregame warm-ups carefully, and Heather seemed very focused. She kept a serious expression on her face, and although she wasn’t interacting with her teammates as much as usual, that was probably understandable. As the starting line-up was introduced, Heather sprinted onto the floor, but kept her eyes forward as she ran through her teammates who were slapping her hands. If the situation was affecting Chris at all, it wasn’t obvious to the head coach.

The opening tip went to Bennie, and almost before she could look up, Heather was sprinting toward her basket ahead of the Stanford defense. Bennie fired the pass to her for the easy lay-up and NOU took the first lead. As the Cardinal came down for their first offensive possession, Heather was matched up against their high-scoring "2" guard. She picked her up at half-court and proceeded to deny her the ball, despite having to fight through 3 or 4 picks that were being set in an attempt to free her up. The Cardinal eventually had to settle for an off-balance shot by one of their post players that missed badly, and Natalia grabbed the rebound and quickly fired the outlet pass to Bennie. Heather was again streaking down the sideline, but there was one Stanford player back defending. Heather did a jab-step into the lane and popped back out to the three-point line where Bennie threw her the pass. She didn’t even hesitate as she took the three-pointer, and was already heading back downcourt as it swished through the net.

A little smile played across the head coach’s lips, even though she had been saying "No!" as Heather was taking the quick shot with no rebounders. Good for you! I knew you could do it!

About 15 minutes into the game, the score was even and Jess could see that Heather needed a rest. She told Chris to go in for her, and as Heather came off the court she deliberately avoided the hand that Chris offered her, her eyes focused on the bench. She went down to sit at the end, and Jess followed her there, kneeling down in front of her with a hand on the player’s knee.

Jess turned her head so only Heather could hear her and said, "You’re doing great – I’m really proud of you." The mask that Heather had been wearing the whole game slipped a little as she smiled slightly at the coach. Jess smiled back and returned to her seat, focusing once again on the game.

By half-time, NOU was up by four and the team was excited as they entered the locker room. Jess could hear players saying, "We can do this!" and the optimism was almost contagious. However, Jess had been around long enough to know that Stanford was not going to come out in the second half without making some adjustments, and beating them on their home court would be a rare feat for any team. The head coach tried to temper the optimism without losing the enthusiasm, and after making a few adjustments of her own, sent them back onto the court for the second half.

As expected, Stanford started the second half with a new look, switching defenses repeatedly, and pushing the tempo of the game. They were paying more attention to Heather, who was finding it difficult to get free for a shot. To her credit, she concentrated on defense, passing, and rebounding instead, and other players were able to benefit from the double-teams she was drawing.

With a minute left in the game, NOU was up by one and Stanford had possession. As they reversed the ball around the key, Heather anticipated the pass to the weak-side player and neatly intercepted it, heading downcourt for a lay-up. She was fouled hard going to the basket, and landed heavily on the floor. She slowly got up, and limped toward the free-throw line, barely putting weight on her right ankle. The referee asked her if she was alright, and she waved her off, saying she would be fine. With the crowd behind the basket waving balloons and jumping up and down to distract her, Heather made both free throws, putting NOU up 3 with 30 seconds left.

Stanford called time-out and Jess pulled Heather aside. "Are you OK?"

"I’m fine," Heather replied, not meeting the coach’s eyes.

Jess looked skeptically at the young woman. "Jump on your right leg for me."

Heather’s face contorted with pain and frustration as she shifted her weight to her right leg, which immediately gave out.

Jess put her hands on Heather’s shoulders and bent her head to look into the player’s eyes, which were starting to fill with tears. "Heather, we wouldn’t even be in this game if it wasn’t for you. But you’re in no shape to play. Go get some ice on that ankle so it doesn’t swell up on you."

Heather limped off toward the end of the bench, met halfway by the trainer who put her arm around the player’s waist and acted as a crutch for her. Jess watched her for a moment, and then quickly strode over to where the team was huddled with the assistant coaches.

"Chris, report in for Heather." She waited until Chris got back from the scorer’s table and then knelt in front of her team. She could barely be heard over the noise of the Stanford band and the cheering crowd. "We can’t let them shoot the three!" she shouted as the players bent their heads closer to try and hear her. "We’re going to go with the straight player defense, but you need to watch for the inside-out. Don’t be sucked into the key if they throw the ball into the post. Natalia, you’re not going to get any help inside." The tall post player nodded with a look of determination on her face. "If we play good defense for 30 more seconds, we can win this game!" Jess looked around at the faces and was pleased to see that no one seemed hesitant or scared. She stood up and put her hand out, the others quickly reaching in to join hands, and said, "Defense," which the team repeated in unison before heading back onto the court.

As the team was waiting for Stanford to break their huddle, Jess called over Chris and Bennie and told them to switch their defensive assignments, giving Bennie responsibility for Stanford’s star player. The Cardinal in-bounded the ball at the end line, and worked some time off the clock. With about 10 seconds left, Chris’s player had the ball and faked one way before driving hard down the right side of the lane, leaving Chris trailing helplessly behind. Bennie immediately left her player to help out, leaving Stanford’s star wide open for a three-point shot when the driving player passed her the ball. The shot dropped through at the buzzer and the place erupted.

"Overtime! We’re going to overtime!" the announcer screamed.

Jess did her best to remain composed as she called her team back over for the brief intermission before the overtime began. The players were stunned, though, and Jess knew that the momentum was squarely in Stanford’s favor. On top of that, NOU was going to have to play the overtime without Heather, who had clearly been the spark for most of the game.

Jess did her best to pump up the team, and they left the huddle with determined looks on their faces, but it didn’t take long for Stanford to reel off 6 quick points without answer. NOU ended up losing by 4, and Jess watched as a line of very disappointed players filed past her on their way to the locker room.

The coach couldn’t have felt more frustrated herself. They had missed an opportunity to beat one of the premier teams in the country on their home court, had missed an opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the conference, and had lost a starter to injury. It’s going to be a long trip home, Jess thought dejectedly as she made her way off the court.

 

Jess walked wearily down the hall to her hotel room after telling the players to meet for breakfast at 6 the next morning. "What a day," she sighed to herself, thinking back to the difficult conversation with Heather earlier that afternoon. Heather had been in tears again after the game, and Jess could only imagine how devastating the combination of injuring her ankle, losing the game, and dealing with a broken heart would be. As her coach, Jess couldn’t help but feel responsible and wished there were something she could do to help the young woman out. Feeling tired, depressed, and above all, lonely, she pushed open the hotel room door, thinking that she would give anything to be back home with Robin.

The scent of flowers hit her immediately, and Jess looked up to see a dozen roses arranged in a vase on the table in her room. She stared incredulously at the bouquet, and slowly walked over to the table. She slid the card out of a small envelope that just said "Jess" on the outside, and a smile slowly spread across her face.

Jess –

Happy Valentine’s Day! I’m thinking of you always…

I love you –

Robin

 

Jess couldn’t believe it. She…she loves me? Can that be true? She read the card again and decided that maybe the day wasn’t so bad after all.

 

Continued in part 14


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