Hope Is a Muscle

January 01, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

"Northampton would go on to the state tournament.

''And the Amherst girls?

''The Amherst girls could stay home and they could do whatever there is to do in a town whose official seal is a book and a plow.''

Those were the dark thoughts churning in the head of a Massachusetts teen-ager in March 1992, after her high school basketball team had humiliated itself in post-season play.

Yet, as often happens, the humiliation of a good team unraveling under pressure helped to feed the determination and spark that creates champions. That team, the Lady Hurricanes of Amherst, Massachusetts, went from that defeat in the Western Massachusetts semi-finals to a state championship season.

Afterward, the seniors went on to college, some with full scholarships. The others went on to more seasons with the team. But all of them became stars in a captivating new book by Madeleine Blais. ''In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle'' chronicles a year in which the team finally reached the state championships and, in winning it all, played one of those unforgettable games in which, as Ms. Blais describes it, ''the Hurricanes entered a zone where all of them were all-Americans.''

It's a story of smart, funny, determined and achingly adolescent girls molded into a championship team by a wise and funny coach. But in the narrative, there is also the larger story of what can happen when girls are given the chance to run and train, stretch and push themselves -- when they learn not just to play fair but also to play hard. It is a story of girls learning how to win.

Team sports have long provided the comfortable, defining metaphors of boyhood. Only in recent years have American girls also been given the chance to test themselves and their friendships on the fields of play. In the process, they and their coaches are learning some important lessons.

For some girls, the hard edge that makes a champion doesn't come naturally. Kathleen Poe, the Hurricanes' senior forward, was a good example. Soon after pre-season practice began, Coach Ron Moyer began to worry about his ''Kathleen'' problem. She was a gifted player but unable to summon the hard edge she needed on the basketball court. If she bumped into another player, or another player bumped into her, her instinctive reaction was to say, ''I'm sorry.''

Coach Moyer didn't need politeness, he needed ferocity, something Kathleen seemed incapable of. So, in an inspired coaching move, he invented an alternate personality who would enable Kathleen to break out of the trap of her niceness. At practice one day, he announced to the startled team that, henceforth, Kathleen would stay home, replaced by her evil twin Skippy. It worked.

Over the course of the season, the Lady Hurricanes never lost. They jelled into the kind of team that creates legends. But girls don't have to be state champions to learn important lessons from sports, and neither do boys. Confidence, courage, preparation, determination. These traits are habits that require practice, day in and day out.

A couple of years ago, Girls, Inc., formerly known as Girls Clubs of America, asked girls how their lives would be different if they were boys. The answers illustrated the pervasiveness of sexual stereotypes that for so long cramped girls' horizons and helped keep team sports a male pursuit.

Listen to the answer of 15-year-old Jometa: ''I think my life would be a lot different if I were a male, because my mother and father would let me do more things, and stay out later and go more places,'' she said. ''Also I wouldn't be pregnant.''

Too often society doesn't worry much about girls in those years between early childhood and womanhood. But those are precisely the years in which girls are learning the lessons that will, for good or ill, set the patterns of their lives. Team sports are not the only way to instill good things like confidence and courage, but for some girls they can be invaluable.

Listen to Lady Hurricane Rita Powell on the subject of Madonna: ''Madonna is not my hero. She wanted attention, she wanted money, she wanted glory, she wanted the microphone, and she did it just by taking off her clothes. I treat my body 300 degrees different. I lift weights not so I'll look strong to other people, but so I'll be strong.''

And listen as Ms. Blais describes Jen Pariseau's lament about press coverage of female athletes: ''First, there was so little; second what there was tended to include adjectives like lithe and winsome and gorgeous, which she thought should be outlawed in favor of more pertinent descriptions.

'' 'You, know. Words like strong.' "

Strong -- being strong, not just looking strong. That's an important distinction. It's also a lesson for a lifetime.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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