Emily’s phone began to buzz.
She was in her friend Sarah’s room in McKee Hall. It was a Friday — one weekend before Halloween — and they, along with another friend, Jackie, were getting ready to go out for the night.
Emily looked down at her lit-up phone screen, and her stomach fluttered. She knew that number.
She held her phone in her hand and looked back up at Sarah and Jackie.
“Guys,” she said, “I’ll be right back. I’m about to get an offer.”
Emily left Sarah’s room and went into the hallway. She tapped the green circle on her iPhone screen.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi, Emily,” said a woman’s voice on the other end. It was Lindsay Jackson, the head coach for the College of the Holy Cross’ field hockey team.
She and Emily made small talk for a minute. Coach Jackson asked Emily how school was going.
Then she said, “So, the team all really enjoyed getting to know you, and we’d all really love it if you’d come play for us.”
Emily walked into McKee’s lobby and over to the window opposite the front door. Her reflection stared back at her from the glass.
“I’m really honored,” she said. She paced in circles in front of the window. “But I have to talk to my parents, since it’s a big financial commitment.”
Coach Jackson’s disembodied voice sounded a little surprised. Emily knew what she was thinking: “Haven’t we already had this conversation?”
They had. It was not hard to see that Coach Jackson and the rest of the Holy Cross field hockey staff were interested in adding Emily to their roster, especially after everything that Emily had done the summer before. Emily knew they wanted her, and she knew her parents expected her to go.
“I know it’s a big decision,” Coach Jackson said. She asked Emily to call her once she’d made her choice.
Emily hung up. She had worked for five years to get here — to get an offer to play Division I field hockey. This was why she had spent so many hours at all of the practices and tournaments and overnight camps. She had had her hopes raised and dashed and then raised again. She’d finally gotten what she’d told herself, for so many years, that she wanted.
So why did she feel so unsure?
* * *
The recruiting frenzy began when Emily was in eighth grade. That spring, on a recommendation from her club coach, she tried out to be a goalie for her regional Futures team, and made the cut. Being part of the development program for the U.S. women’s national and Olympic teams meant that for seven Saturdays that spring, Emily trained for eight hours each day with girls from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and the surrounding areas. That summer, her team played in the National Futures Championship against teams from other regions around the country, each girl hoping to attract the attention of Futures scouts and win a spot at the Junior Olympics.
Emily didn’t move on to the Junior Olympics, but the wheels had been set in motion. She wanted to play college field hockey, to become one of the best players at one of the best schools. Her parents told her that field hockey could help her get into a better school than she would otherwise have been able to attend or afford.
So that summer, Emily began going to college recruiting camps. She played in tournaments with her club team on the weekends. Her summer break was filled with sweaty practices and road trips and strange hotels. When she wasn’t away with the club, she had her upcoming season on Coffman High School’s team to prepare for.
During Emily’s freshman year, she made friends with Sarah Noreen, a fellow goalie on Coffman’s field hockey team. Sarah would vent to Emily about how she was burnt out and disillusioned with recruiting, with all the hours and heart poured into a system that gave no guarantees it would pay off. Emily listened to her and couldn’t help but feel the same way. She decided she wanted to stop all of it.
But something happened Emily’s sophomore year. She was sitting on the bus after a game, her gear piled around her on the sticky leather seat. It was early in the season, and the trees’ still-green leaves blurred past the open window.
Emily was sitting near Katie, Carly and Kate, juniors who who were considered three of the best players on the team. They always stuck together, and at every end-of-season banquet they won all-league accolades.
As the bus bumped along the road back to Coffman, Emily overheard the three of them talking about emails they had gotten from college coaches, who expressed their interest in recruiting the girls and invited them to visit campus.
Of course. It was September 1.
According to NCAA regulations, Division I coaches could initiate communication with players only after the first day of September. Before that, the players were the ones who had to be the first to make the phone calls and send the emails.
As Emily listened to Katie, Carly, and Kate on the bus that day, she thought, I want that. She wanted to be considered one of the players on the team that was being recruited, that a big-time school was coming after. She no longer wanted to be just a player. She wanted to be a recruit.
So Emily started it all over again. She joined a new club team, coached by Keli Puzo, a former Olympian. From sophomore year until senior year, she dove back into the recruiting clamor, once again doing the tryouts and practices and tournaments with her club team. She went to colleges’ recruiting camps — OU and Indiana and Northwestern and Louisville. Some, she attended multiple summers in a row. In the spring of her junior year, she went to the a recruitment-focused junior day at Dartmouth.
That year, Emily was eating lunch in the school cafeteria with her friends when she looked up to see Katie’s face on the two small lunchroom TVs. The broadcast team was interviewing Katie about her recent commitment to play field hockey for Ohio State.
The majority of Coffman’s student body wasn’t very familiar with field hockey, but everyone knew about college athletic recruits. Coffman athletes signed letters of intent every year at signing days hosted by the school in November and April. Every athlete who was considered to be good at their sport heard the question, “Are you going to play in college?”
As junior year merged into senior year, more and more of Emily’s friends from her club team committed to play in college. Maddie, Avery, and Kendall committed to Miami. Rachel committed to Ohio State.
Meanwhile, Emily’s parents continued to stress that field hockey could be her path to a prestigious school. Suddenly, it seemed like she was seeing new posts pop up in her Instagram feed all the time showing people she knew, smiling and wearing in college gear, above captions that proclaimed they had accepted an offer to play at the next level.
The summer before Emily’s senior year, both Northwestern and Dartmouth were pursuing her as a possible goalie for their roster. But she was second on both of their depth charts; if the schools’ top recruits accepted the offers, it was all over for Emily.
Emily would have gone to either school if they had made her an offer. But that fall, her decision was made for her: both schools called to tell her they were signing their top recruits. The Dartmouth coach promised to pass Emily’s name on to other programs that she knew were still looking for goalies.
Both programs called Emily before college applications were due, so she spent the rest of her year the same way every other senior did — applying to schools and waiting to hear back. In April, she decided to attend Miami University, and looked forward to a relaxing summer of hanging out with her friends before they all went their separate ways in the fall.
In June, Emily was sitting in the backseat of her car, with her parents sitting in the front. She unlocked her phone and checked her email.
She had all but given up on playing varsity field hockey in college, yet beaming up at her in bold face from her inbox was an email from the head coach at the College of the Holy Cross.
* * *
In early July, Emily and her parents flew to Boston. From there, they drove 45 minutes to Worcester, Massachusetts, home of the College of the Holy Cross, where Emily would attend the last two days of the Holy Cross field hockey camp.
Holy Cross’ campus is small and sloped, with one side higher than the other. The 3,000 students who live there during the school year can walk from one end of campus to the other, heading uphill, in 15 minutes. Perched on the hills are tall buildings with pointed roofs and many, many sets of stairs. The field hockey fields — where the Crusaders, clad in purple and white, play their home games — are at the top of the hill.
In her email, Coach Jackson had told Emily that she was interested in recruiting her and invited her to their annual summer camp. Since the invitation had come so last-minute, Emily only went to two days of the camp, instead of the full four. The first person she met when she and her parents got there was Rachel Lapar, a current sophomore Holy Cross player who was running the camp store.
After getting settled in at Mulledy Hall, one of two freshman-and-sophomore dorms, Emily hiked up to the field hockey fields. For the next two days, she did drills and played in scrimmages with the rest of the players in two-hour sessions under the hot sun.
The Holy Cross team had already committed one goalie, so Emily was competing for the second spot with another player, a high school senior from New York named Danielle. Even though they were both vying for the same position, things were friendly between them. Emily called her Danni for short.
Her parents stayed, and they all met Coach Jackson in person. She had curly brown hair and a friendly smile, and this season would be her first at Holy Cross. She didn’t even have an assistant yet.
At the end of the two days, after Coach Jackson had gotten to see Emily play, she talked to Emily and her parents about what would come next.
“You’re obviously a little rusty, but we saw some good things,” she told Emily. She said she wanted Emily to come to Holy Cross for an official visit in the fall.
* * *
A few weeks after the Holy Cross camp, Emily was sitting on the couch in her living room. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that led into her wide backyard, she watched her Italian Spinone, Zio, run around in the early August air.
At the same time, Emily scrolled through her Twitter newsfeed, pausing for barely a second to read each 140-character blurb before swiping upwards with her thumb. The tweets were about food and sports and friends and the weather. Then something different caught her eye.
It was from Danni.
“Verbally committed to play Division 1 Field Hockey at The College of The Holy Cross!! Go Crusaders!”
The words were followed by two purple hearts.
After that, Emily lost hope in playing for Holy Cross. She was disappointed, but not surprised. Playing field hockey in college hadn’t worked out before, so why should it now? A good showing at the Holy Cross camp was no guarantee of a varsity spot.
She figured it would end in the same way as Dartmouth and Northwestern ended. She didn’t expect Holy Cross to still be interested. After all, they had two new goalies on their roster already.
But when Coach Jackson called Emily, she didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to make the offer to someone else.” In fact, the words that came through the phone were the exact opposite of what Emily was expecting to hear.
Coach Jackson told her that the staff still wanted her to come on her official visit in the fall. She didn’t mention Danni.
Emily had known Holy Cross was going to call her at some point, but she was surprised to hear they were still looking. She’d fully anticipated to hear that Holy Cross was done recruiting, that they had enough goalies on their roster. But they were still interested. She was happy to know she still had a chance.
Emily’s parents were happy, too. Coach Jackson told Emily before the official visit that she didn’t have any scholarship money to offer her, so Emily would have to pay the full price of attendance — almost $60,000. But Emily’s parents were fine with that. For them, it was worth it for the caliber of the education they thought Emily would be getting.
Emily went on her official visit in September of her freshman year at Miami. She flew into Boston, where Holy Cross had sent a car to drive her to the school. The assistant coach met her when she arrived in Worcester and introduced her to the player she would be staying with that night: Rachel, the girl who ran the camp store in the summer.
Rachel gave Emily a campus tour, and they got food at the student union. In the middle of their meal, Rachel had to leave to get changed for her game later that day, so Emily finished eating by herself and braved a chilly hike up the hill to the field hockey fields.
She watched from the stands as Holy Cross beat Colgate. After the game, Rachel took Emily back to her room in Mulledy Hall. They got dinner at the campus’s only dining hall, then went to one of the junior dorms to hang out with the rest of the team.
The next morning, Emily met with the coaches. She brought up Danni’s tweet.
“We did commit another goalie,” said Coach Jackson. “But we would really like to have another goalie on the roster. Not all three of you would be able to travel, but in case someone gets injured, I would like to have you.”
She explained that having Emily on the team would create more competition for Holy Cross’ goalies; the players would get better by working harder every week to try and secure their position.
Emily acted like she agreed with where Coach Jackson was coming from. “Yeah,” she said, “there was a goalie on my high school team that I had to fight for the spot.” But this wasn’t really true; there had never been much of a question about Emily’s status on the Coffman team.
She couldn’t help feeling a little slighted.
Emily thought she’d be receiving an offer that day, but the coaches ended her official visit by telling her, “We’ll be in touch.”
She returned to Miami. Weeks passed, but she heard nothing from the Holy Cross coaches.
Emily kept her skills fresh by playing on Miami’s club field hockey team. She made plans to spend the next semester studying in London — if Holy Cross offered her the position, she would transfer there the following fall, which meant spring semester of freshman year would be her only chance to go abroad.
She tried not to stress about the phone call — until that October evening in McKee Hall.
* * *
After Emily got the call from Coach Jackson, she went out and had a fun night with her friends. The next day, she put off thinking about the offer for as long as possible.
She was stalling. She knew she was. She was so unsure about what she should do and so terrified of making the wrong decision. So finally, at 7:16 p.m., nearly 24 hours after taking Coach Jackson’s call, she texted her club coach, Keli Puzo:
“Hey kel, I got word from holy cross that they want me to come if it’s what I want. I was hoping we could talk sometime soon to just talk it out.”
Emily always told Keli everything. Keli had been her coach for three years in high school, then moved to Oxford when her husband got a job as Miami’s head field hockey coach. Now that they were both in the same city again, Emily babysat Keli’s kids.
Keli couldn’t talk that night, so Emily had to wait until the next day. She was in bed, taking a nap, when Keli called. A little groggy, Emily answered and told Keli about the offer.
“Is this what you really want?” Keli asked her.
“I’m not sure,” Emily said. “But I think I’m going to take it.”
She thought that would be her final decision. She felt like she should accept the offer, after everything that had led up to this point. She had had a hard time adjusting to freshman year at Miami, in a new place with new people, but she could get over it. She could be happy at Holy Cross. Probably.
Emily had always wanted to coach field hockey, too, and during the summer after senior year, she went to the high school practices to help the incoming freshmen. She was introduced as a “former player,” which embarrassed her. She felt like she had to validate her ability to coach them, to earn their respect. They hadn’t played on the field with her. They didn’t know how good she actually was.
Emily thought that if she played in college, she would command more respect. Her players would want to learn from her and would see her as someone who really knew what was going on.
“Wow, she played Division I field hockey,” Emily imagined her players would say. “She was, like, really good.”
Emily remembered how disappointed she had been when it didn’t pan out for Dartmouth or Northwestern. Here was a chance at redemption.
But at what cost? What was she giving up here at Miami? What would she be leaving behind if she packed her bags for Holy Cross?
“I’m really happy and proud of you,” said Keli, on the other end of the line in Emily’s bedroom. Emily thanked her and hung up.
But, still, she didn’t call Coach Jackson back.
* * *
Emily spent the next week thinking about the offer. One night, before club practice, she parked her gray Subaru Impreza in the lot outside the field hockey fields to talk to her teammate, senior Cam Colby, who was sitting in Emily’s backseat.
Cam was a former Miami varsity field hockey player, but had quit after sophomore year. Now she played for the club team.
Emily told Cam about the offer and about how she wasn’t sure if she was making the right decision. She asked Cam why she had stopped playing varsity.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves to be happy,” Cam said. There was no longer any joy for her in competing at a level with such high pressure and high stakes.
“If this doesn’t make you happy, you shouldn’t do it,” she said.
Emily didn’t exactly feel happy about the offer. In fact, she felt like she should have been more excited about it. It should have been news she was happy to share with everyone, but it wasn’t. She was dreading telling the friends she would have to leave at Miami.
* * *
Emily stood in line for the bathroom next to Maddie and Avery, who, along with the rest of the varsity field hockey team, were dressed as members of a motorcycle gang. It was Halloween, a crowded Saturday night at Brick Street, and the air was filled with the sound of thumping music and the smell of Red Bull.
Emily had started playing field hockey with Maddie and Avery in her sophomore year of high school. They had gone to endless practices and summer tournaments together. Every February for three years, they had played together on the glittering green turf of the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. Every November, they had played together at the National Hockey Festival in Palm Beach.
Maddie lived near Emily in Ohio, but went to a different high school. Avery lived four hundred miles away from them, in Virginia. But despite the distance, Emily grew close to them. She blocked shot after shot under glaring stadium lights and knew that her teammates were there to help her protect the goal. Off the field, the trio became friends through countless hours of chatting in hotel lobbies and over pregame meals.
Emily was especially excited when she found out that she, Maddie and Avery were all going to be attending Miami together. But when she got to school in August, she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to spend as much time with them as she’d hoped. Varsity practices and games ate up almost all of her friends’ time, and this Halloween night at Brick Street was the first time she’d been able to see them all year.
In the line for the bathroom, they chatted as if no time had passed at all. Then, during a lull in the conversation, Emily spoke up.
“Oh, by the way,” she said, “I got the offer from Holy Cross and I’m going to take it.”
She watched her friends’ faces fall as they stood in front of her. Then Maddie jumped into Emily’s arms.
“I’m going to miss you so much!” she cried. Avery agreed. The girls congratulated Emily, saying they were so happy for her but so sad that she was leaving.
Something tugged at Emily then.
Transferring to Holy Cross would mean leaving Maddie and Avery, and all of her other friends at Miami, behind. She had had a hard enough time adjusting to her freshman year of college, even when she knew people who were on campus with her; would she be able to do that all over again, and this time at a place where she didn’t know anyone at all?
Avery and Maddie were trying to be supportive, but Emily could see in their faces that they were depressed by her news. At that moment, she realized that she would never be as happy at Holy Cross as she was at Miami.
As the girls washed their hands and headed out of the bathroom, Emily knew what her final decision was going to be. She wasn’t telling anyone yet, but she felt sure that this decision would finally be the right one.
* * *
A week later, Emily texted Keli again.
“Hey kel! Just wanted to let you know I changed my mind…I had definitely made up my mind to go but when I told people about it, I realized that i was unhappy and that I was almost forcing myself to want to go. I’m talking with the coach tomorrow to explain all of that. I’m excited about my future here though!!”
A few minutes later, Keli replied:
“Im happy for you! Way to follow your heart. Happiness will always lead to success… In hockey, life, love and everything you do! Looking forward to having another babysitter in town. ;)”
The next evening, Emily found herself pacing outside Havighurst Hall, her phone in her hand. She was nervous about calling Coach Jackson. Though she knew she was making the right decision by staying at Miami, some of her old doubt was creeping into her brain.
This was it. Once she said it, she could never take it back.
She finally screwed up her courage and called, telling Coach Jackson, “I can’t ask my parents to spend that much money.” But the real reason was so much more than that.
To Emily’s relief, Coach Jackson was understanding. “You have to do what’s best for you, she said. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. I’ll be rooting for you in the future.”
The call lasted barely three minutes.
After it was over, Emily felt a little bittersweet. She had worked for this for so long, and now she had said no. Her on-again, off-again dream was done. The prospect of being a Division I varsity athlete was gone, but so was all the stress of having something to prove — to coaches, to other players, and to herself.
Really, the strongest emotion she felt was relief.
* * *
A year later, after a full day of classes, Emily walks back to Wells Hall, where she lives. It is October once again, and Miami’s trees are resplendent in glorious golds, oranges, and reds. The evening sun is beginning to dip below the tree line.
“Wow,” Emily thinks. “This school is so beautiful.”
She is in her junior year at Miami, and completely confident that she made the right decision to stay. She loves it here. She is studying political science and interning with the Ohio Democratic Party. She has a job at the package center. For the first time in her life, she is playing field hockey — for Miami’s club team — just to have fun.
Sometimes, still, for no apparent reason, there are moments when she simply thinks, “Wow, I’m really happy that I decided to stay.” Maybe it’s the opportunities she finds here, or the friends she’s made. Maybe it’s because the pressure is gone.
Maybe it’s a combination of all of these.
Maddie and Avery were thrilled when Emily told them about her decision to stay at Miami. Her parents, however, were a different story.
Her dad had been furious. Emily usually tunes him out when he yells, but she remembers him yelling on the phone. Her mom was calmer, upset but wanting to understand what was going through Emily’s head, why she had turned the offer down. She and Emily’s dad weren’t happy for a while, but eventually, they came to terms with the decision.
“You needed to talk to us about this,” her parents said. But Emily had made this decision for herself — for her own reasons, not anyone else’s.
As Emily crosses Oak Street on her way home, she passes other students on their way to class or dinner or their own dorms. Cars rumble by on the street next to her, and, just beyond the next building, she can see Wells.
She lives here — in this place that is colorful and vibrant and full of life. This is where she’s supposed to be, and now, finally, she’s sure of it.