Emma Jordan ribbed her coach about losing the bet.
The senior captain and centerfielder leaned against Rob Mason's thick shoulder and cocked her head to the side. "Time to pay up, big guy!"
Coach Mason issued a side-eye glance and caught a mischievous grin in return.
It didn't take long for the team to join in, as they circled and whooped, Mason padded the air with a calloused hand. "Alright, alright," he conceded.
Emma nudged him with an elbow and teased, "It'll be dark soon."
Mason cracked a smile and replied, "Easy now, sister."
Then the coach lowered his bulky frame to the ground, and the Lady Redhawk Softball Team started to cheer. Emma hovered over her coach and pointed a dramatic finger, counting out each rep.
Upon pushing out the tenth one, the team celebrated, and Coach Mason collapsed to the ground with a groan. "No more bets," he said breathlessly.
Emma said playfully, "Four years together, and you're still betting against me?" She offered a hand and helped her coach to his feet.
The coach shook his head with a broad smile and put a tired arm around Emma. "I hope you saved some catches for tomorrow," he said. "Twenty-five in a row. And, I tried burning you gap to gap!"
"I got plenty left, coach. Don't you go worrying about me." Her beautiful smile beamed with confidence.
"I'm proud of you, kid. You stuck with it every year when others bailed," he said.
"The sole survivor," she said with a wink.
"Tomorrow, it's all going to pay off. Just think, we've got a chance to punch our ticket to the state tournament. Now, who would have ever imagined that?
Emma's smile grew impossibly bigger, and she answered, "I did, coach."
Later that evening, Emma Jordan sat at the dinner table with her parents. They prayed before the meal, as they always did, and then passed around dishes of mom's whipped potatoes, steamed broccoli, and meatloaf.
"What was the peak of your day?" Phil Jordan asked his daughter.
Emma chuckled and gestured with her fork. "Well, Mason bet pushups that he could burn me in the outfield. Twenty-five catches later, and he was pushing out ten."
Phil and his wife, Darla, shared a laugh with Emma.
Darla said, "He's a good sport. You're lucky to have such a good coach."
"I do know that if not for him, I wouldn't be going to college to play softball," Emma pointed out.
Her parents agreed.
Phil added, "But first, you've got a chance tomorrow to do something special together."
Emma's expression lit up at the thought.
"Are you nervous?" Darla asked.
Emma grinned and quipped, "Who me?"
Across town, around the same time, Coach Mason sat across from his wife for dinner at the local diner. An older gentleman stopped at their table and stood with a hand on the coach's shoulder. "Good luck in the game tomorrow, coach. All of us are cheering for you."
"Hope you can make it, Frank."
"Oh, I'll be there – as will the whole town. I wouldn't miss it!"
The coach thanked the gentleman and stared at the plate in front of him.
"You've not eaten much," Val Mason said to her husband.
"I'm a bundle of nerves, sweetheart. I've coached nearly thirty years for this opportunity, and now that I've got it, I'm scared to death about losing."
Val Mason offered a sympathetic look and reached across the table and held her husband's hand. "Are the girls as nervous as you?"
Coach Mason chuckled and shook his head. "Emma has them pretty loose. You know how she is – no challenge too big."
"Then everything's going to be fine, dear. Just eat," she said and squeezed his hand.
The next day as the two teams prepared for the game on opposite sides of the field, Emma leaned against her coach and said, "Stop sweatin', big guy – I told you we got this."
Hearing Emma's confidence reminded Mason to breathe. He grinned and asked, "Do you have ice water running through your veins?"
Emma flashed a set of perfect teeth, winked, and juggled her shoulders and rattled off a few words, "Ice, Ice, Baby…" Then she sprinted away to join her teammates.
The game started perfectly for the Redhawks. After the first two innings, they led by three runs. Their opponent, the Bulldogs, cut into the lead in the fifth, but thanks to Emma's over-the-shoulder catch near the centerfield fence, the Redhawks preserved the lead and found themselves up two runs going into the bottom of the seventh.
Before taking the field for the final frame, Emma gathered the team around her. "Listen, three outs, and we're going to state! Stay focused – we can do this. Three outs!"
After two quick outs, trouble emerged. A single, an error, and a walk loaded the bases.
Coach Mason called a timeout and gathered the team in the center of the diamond. Emma sprinted in from centerfield to take part.
"Make your pitches and trust the defense behind you," he instructed the pitcher.
"They hit it. I'll get it," Emma assured and patted her glove against the pitcher's back.
Two strikes later, the crowd rose to their feet and roared with excitement.
Coach Mason rocked back and forth in the dugout with clenched fists - victory was close, and he could feel it.
On the next pitch, the hitter struck the ball high into the air toward Emma in centerfield.
Mason stepped out of the dugout and tracked it. He lifted his arms above his head, anticipating how the game would end - a routine fly ball to his senior centerfielder. There couldn't be a more fitting ending.
With two outs, the runners were off with the crack of the bat and circling the bases. As gravity brought the ball toward earth, all eyes fixed on Emma.
Camped under it, Emma squeezed it as it popped into her glove. Game over. Her teammates sprinted toward the outfield where she stood and dogpiled in a frenzied celebration.
Tears flooded Coach Mason's eyes, and for a moment, his knees felt weak.
After congratulating the other team on a good game, Mason addressed his group.
"We set a goal at the beginning of the season, and tonight, we accomplished it. The truth is that this goal started 30 years ago for me, and four years ago for our senior captain!"
The Redhawk Team burst into cheers and chanted Emma's name.
Coach Mason hushed the group and held a softball above his head. "I think this game ball belongs to Emma!" He tossed the softball to Emma and nodded with a teary smile. "Always keep your goals in sight and don't ever drop the ball, kid."
After the game, Emma Jordan celebrated with her teammates. She held onto the ball as she danced to loud music and laughed while sharing softball stories with her friends. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., Emma said goodbye and left with her boyfriend, Eric.
Emma had two hours before curfew, so they drove out to their favorite weekend spot – a secluded place just outside of town by the lake.
Eric put the car in park and turned to his long-time girlfriend. "Em, the game – you were awesome." Then he laughed and pointed. "And are you going to hang onto that ball all night?"
She twirled the softball in her hand and said with a grin, "Let's celebrate!"
"And how do you suggest we do that?" Eric said with a sly smile.
Emma mirrored his look and playfully slapped him on the shoulder. "Same as we do after every win!"
Eric dug into his pocket and pulled out a joint and examined it in the moonlight. "Special something for a special win."
"Light it up," she said, and her eyes sparkled.
So, he did, and they both watched the slow burn of smoke before Eric took a quick hit and passed it to Emma.
She leaned back, put the joint to her lips, closed her eyes, and inhaled. Instantly, there was a burn. It felt different, but she craved the high, so she hit it again.
Emma coughed and held the joint away. "Wow – burns like hell," she said.
He grinned and repeated, "Special something for a special win." He took it back from her and took another hit.
Emma complained, "No, seriously, something's not right." She coughed again and opened the car door and spilled out to her knees, and began to vomit.
Eric attempted to move after her, but instead, he fell over in his seat and blacked out.
Emma cried as she puked. She strained to stop gagging. After a minute or so, she pivoted back to the car and used its frame to pull herself onto wobbly knees. The ball remained firmly in her right hand. Emma reached inside the car with her left, for her phone, which had tumbled onto the floormat. As she grabbed it, her body swayed, and lights flickered inside her head. Emma dropped the ball and then collapsed backward onto the ground.
When Emma didn't make curfew, her parents tried her phone – then, Eric's. Emma had never once missed curfew, and her parents grew concerned. They left the house to find their daughter and called the police along the way.
Just before daybreak, the police, who had searched throughout the early morning hours, located the young couple by pinging their cellphones.
When the first responders arrived, Eric was dead. Emma was not.
An ambulance rushed her to the hospital. Emma's parents prayed and cried in the waiting room. Soon, Coach Mason, teammates, and friends joined them, filling the space.
After a few grueling hours, a doctor entered the room. There was no need for words. His expression said it all.
The doctor pulled Emma's parents aside and delivered the news. "We administered naloxone based on our suspicions, which we've since confirmed."
Phil interrupted, "Naloxone? Isn't that…"
The doctor solemnly nodded. "I'm afraid Emma, unexpectantly, smoked marijuana laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl."
Darla Jordan nearly fainted and caught a chair as she stumbled.
"That's impossible," Phil protested. "My daughter doesn't do drugs!"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jordan," the doctor said softly and pinched at the bridge of his nose to suppress tears. "We did all we could do, but Emma has passed."
Darla Jordan wailed, and all hope disappeared from the room. Phil Jordan fell against the wall, slid to the floor, and wept.
A few days later, the Redhawks played in the championship game of the state tournament with heavy hearts and a black stripe on their jersey sleeves.
The final out came on a fly ball caught in centerfield, sparking the Redhawks to celebrate the school's first state championship.
After the medal presentation, Rob Mason addressed his team who gathered arm-in-arm in a small circle around him.
He gripped a softball above his head and fought back a rush of tears. His voice trembled as he spoke.
"Every day, we go through our lives with the confidence of catching a routine fly ball."
"We tend to be oblivious to the dangers around us. We don't see the cross-winds or the blinding glare from the sun. We fail to account for the possibilities."
"We ignore the fact that nothing in life is guaranteed."
"It's because we've been there, done it before. So, we grow complacent in our decisions, and in doing so, we invite mistakes.
"Simply put, we take things for granted, and we wrongly assume we're in control – and that's when we drop the ball…"
Not a dry eye remained among the young ladies in the huddle. They all held their heads low and nodded along while staring at the grass before them.
With tears rolling off his cheeks, Coach Mason finished with a final statement.
"I love you all. We did this for Emma. And to honor her, I ask that you never take a single day for granted. Do everything with a purpose. Make every decision with thoughtful consideration. And never forget that life is anything but routine, so, no matter what you do, always keep your eye on the ball."
Jerrad Hardin is an award-winning coach and best-selling author. To learn more about Jerrad, please visit: www.jerradhardin.com
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