After Keiko got back together with Saito, most of July had come and gone, and much had happened. Final Exams were over, Hiroki's Middle School and Koichi's Elementary tournaments had finished, Mai's pregnancy had progressed further, Hiroki had gone to a week-long training camp with the U-13 team and came back full of confidence, and Suzuka's admission to Nadeshiko Japan had been finalized. She had also played in her first international friendly match, against Armenia, alongside Keiko and Nana, in a 6-2 victory. Keiko and Saito, having decided to live together on their own, were also looking for cheap apartments in their spare time.
Now, it was Tuesday July 20th, the first day of Summer Vacation that year. But it was also, at long last, the first day of Nationals.
"This is it!" said Suzuka after they finished changing in the locker rooms of the stadium where the first round of Nationals was taking place "This is the first day of the tournament where we can take the title of 'Best in the Nation'."
"The captain seems really pumped up." Amuro whispered to Haruhi
"Joining Nadeshiko Japan must've gone to her head." Haruhi replied
"I'm getting kinda nervous." said Yuzuki "I've never played in a big competition like this."
"What's making me nervous is: we still don't know who our first opponent is." said Keiko
"Calm down, Keiko-chan" said Saito, putting a hand on Keiko's shoulder "We'll know when the coach comes back."
"You're right. I need to relax." Keiko replied
"One word from Saito, and she calms down." said Miho "Such a love dubby couple."
"I wanna get married too." said Nagisa
"We're not married!" Keiko and Saito said in unison. The entire team had been teasing them about it since they got back together. Keiko had never taken off the ring Saito gave her either.
"Come on now, girls. Don't tease them." said Yuki
All of a sudden the door burst open.
"Akitsuki!" exclaimed the girl who burst through the door, and put Suzuka in a headlock "Sorry to intrude, but I hope you and your team aren't gonna disappoint me this year."
"S-senpai." Suzuka gasped
"Qui êtes-vous et que faites-vous à notre capitaine?! [Who are you, and what are you doing to our captain?!]" Chloe asked, but Tsukasa put up a hand to silence her
"Excuse her French, Maho-senpai. But what are you doing here?" Tsukasa asked
"What? I can't come cheer for my school?" Maho asked, still keeping Suzuka in a headlock
"'Maho-senpai'?" Aoi inquired of Miki
"Maho Inuzuka (真帆 犬塚). An Enoshima graduate, and last year's captain." Miki explained "Her name means 'full sail', and true to her name, she was tough as a bulldog with us, always making us charge ahead 'full sail'. Really not someone you can willingly disagree with."
"At least she got us close to both titles last year." said Momoka "Though I wish she wouldn't do that to Suzuka-senpai."
"You girls've got several great recruits this year," said Maho "You better not let me down."
"We won't." Suzuka gasped "Now would you let go of me?"
"And Nagisa, try to graduate this year."
"Hai, hai." said Nagisa
"Really glad we enrolled after she had graduated." said Saito
"Ditto." Keiko, Yuki and Chloe said in unison
"Alright girls, enough horsing around." said Mai, who just returned
"Mai-chan! You really are pregnant!" said Maho, releasing Suzuka at last
"Nice to see you again too." Mai replied with a hand on her belly, which had grown quite a bit in the last two weeks, then turned her attention to the team "Alright girls, I finally found out our first opponent for the first round. We're up against Tokyo's representative: Aoba High School."
This announcement had turned the atmosphere, from had been excitement and nervousness, into what seemed like fear. Particularly with the upperclassmen.
"Okay..." Yuki said awkwardly as the rest of the freshmen exchanged confused faces "Did I just feel a chill go though half the room?"
"Is Aoba really that much to be afraid of?" Saito asked
"Saito-kun," Asuka said slowly "Aoba High's the team we lost to in the quarter-finals last year."
"Not only that, but when it comes to the women's tournament, Enoshima has never, ever, won against Aoba High." said Tsukasa
"They place a lot of emphasis on their sports teams, and are some of the best Tokyo has to offer." said Kotomi "They represent Tokyo in the Nationals every year."
"Don't tell me this is all the spine you Sophomores and Seniors have this year." said Maho
"Inuzuka-san is right!" Keiko spoke up "Let's not be so pessimistic. This year's our year."
"Kei-chan's right. We can win." said Yuki
"And if by some odd chance we don't," said Miho
"We'll have another chance to get them back this winter." said Yuzuki
"That's the spirit." said Mai, and the second and third years seemed to cheer up as well
"Alright then," said Suzuka "Let's show those Tokyoites what Kanagawa is made of."
"Yeah!" the entire team chorused.
In the stands;
"Keiko and her friends are finally playing in the Nationals." said Kakeru as he, the rest of the Aizawas, the Shirayukis, and Saki took their seats in the stands.
"My money is on Enoshima scoring the first goal." said Ushio
"You seem confident." said Nana
"It is my son's school." Ushio replied
"It's good to be confident, but they're up against a tough school." said Maho, who just turned up
"And... you are?" Michiru inquired
"Maho Inuzuka. I was Enoshima's captain last year." said Maho, taking her seat, along with the girl with her, behind the Aizawas. The girl with her was Haruka Tachibana, Tsukasa's older sister
"Aren't you Tsukasa's older sister?" Mito inquired of Haruka
"Uh-huh. Maho and I both go to Keiso University, and got acquainted after Enoshima won against my Alma mater, Kisaragi." Haruka told them
"Anyway," said Maho "My old team is up against Aoba High. As far as its girls soccer team goes, it's one of the best schools Tokyo has to offer, after Shuukyuu Academy, and we lost to them in the quarter-finals last year. Keiko and the other first years managed to get the team perked up again, but I'm still unsure about a real victory."
"So Kei-nee's team doesn't have a real chance?" Ryo asked
"I don't know. All I can say, is that this year's team won't have it easy."
"Enoshima will win!" Hiroki and Saki perked up
"Yeah, Keiko-chan isn't someone who will give up against impossible odds." said Michiru "And neither is Yuki-chan or the rest of the team."
"That's some confidence." said Sanae "Mom, make sure to tell me what happens."
"Really think they have a chance, Kake-nii?" Mito asked her brother
"I didn't see last year's quarter-finals, so I can't say." Kakeru replied "All we can really do is believe in them."
"Here they come!" said Nana as both teams took to the field.
On the field;
"And here they are!" said the main announcer as both teams took to the field "It's the first game of the Women's National High School Soccer Tournament!"
"We've got teams from every prefecture in Japan." said the co-announcer "Tokyo, Kanagawa, Hiroshima, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Kyoto, Nagano, Tokushima, Miyazaki, Fukushima, you name it."
"Up first are the representatives of Tokyo and Kanagawa: Enoshima High vs Aoba High!"
The entire audience applauded at this announcement;
"Let's get a look at Enoshima's starting lineup: It's Enoshima's traditional 2-5-3 formation. Keeper is Amuro Okiura. Defenders are Yuzuki Kirishima and Moka Aono. Defensive Midfielders are Haruhi Suou and Aoi Hanabishi. In offense is Kiyomi Yura, Yukari Hayakawa in below-top, and Miho Kusakabe. Forwards are Tsukasa Tachibana, Captain Suzuka Akitsuki, and Keiko Aizawa. And the captains are doing the coin toss now. It's Aoba's kickoff."
"This is it." Keiko thought as Aoba got ready for the kickoff "My first national tournament!" Aoba kicked off. Keiko tried to run in and steal the ball, but Aoba's players got past her, Tsukasa and Suzuka as if they were only air "Whaaaaaat?"
Unable to stop them, Aoba's players swept past Enoshima's entire defense as if it wasn't there, their movements and passes were perfect and synchronized. Within seconds of the kickoff, Aoba High had scored the first goal."
In the stands;
"D-did you see that, Kakeru?" Nana asked
"I saw it, but I don't believe it." Kakeru replied
"This is.... Aoba High." Michiru said slowly, everyone else was too stunned to say anything.
"Even they've improved since last year." Maho thought "Our girls don't stand a chance."
On the field;
Both teams were getting back in position for the next kickoff.
"You're not the only ones who've improved since last year." Aoba's captain said to Suzuka, Tsukasa and Yukari "It doesn't matter how many great recruits you get, or how hard you train, you'll never match the best in the nation." Aoba's captain went back to her place without another word
"Such arrogance!" Keiko thought as she prepared to kick off with Yukari "Well show you." Keiko and Yukari kicked off. Keiko attempted to bring the ball down Aoba's side of the field, but one of Aoba's forwards took the ball before Keiko could react "What the heck...."
"EVERYBODY BACK!" Suzuka ordered. For the next ten minutes, the whole team's defense closed off as many openings as they could, even the offense joined in the defense, eventually forcing the ball to the side, but they still couldn't get the ball back "No good! Moka, force the ball out of the side!" Suzuka ordered, and Moka obliged, making it so it was Enoshima's throw-in.
"This is crazy!" said Keiko as Moka took the throw-in
"Keiko, I know we've learned our lesson about over-relying on you, but you're still one of our best forwards. Haruhi's gonna try and receive Moka's throw-in, try and get the ball back up to the front so we can go on offense."
"Got it." Keiko replied
"Tsukasa, Yukari, Miho, Kiyomi, move forward a few feet as well."
Moka threw the ball back into play. Haruhi and an Aoba Midfielder both jumped up to receive it, but Aoba's player knocked Haruhi out of the way and headed the ball to her feet. Haruhi, on the other hand, landed flat on her left shoulder, making a deafening cracking sound.
"Haruhi!" Moka shouted, and the ref blew the whistle
In the stands;
"Did you see that?" said Hiroki as Haruhi was carried to the bench by her teammates
"Such foul play!" said Ryo
"Actually, a move like that isn't against the rules." said Maho
"Kakeru...?" said Nana
"I know, Nana." Kakeru replied "It's just like my first high school game. One of FC's players got a dislocated shoulder, then was subbed by Kota-kun, who just defected from the SC. I pray that's not the case this time."
Unfortunately, it was.
On the bench;
Mai had removed Haruhi's shirt to assess the damage
"It's a dislocated shoulder." said Mai, after assessing Haruhi's injury "You can't play anymore."
"You're kidding me!" said Haruhi
"Fifteen minutes in, and we've already lost a player." said Saito
"We have subs, Saito-kun." said Mai "Akane-chan, go in for Haruhi-chan."
"Yes, coach." Akane replied
We're restarting from the center-field, so let's give it everything we've got." said Suzuka
The game restarted, and Haruhi was taken to the hospital to treat her shoulder. The rest of the first half didn't go well for Enoshima at all. Haruhi's injury had shaken the team up, and during the last fifteen minutes of the half, Aoba managed to get three goals on Enoshima, while Enoshima only managed one in the last minute. The score was 1-4 in Aoba's favor
In the stands;
"This is turning grim, very grim." said Haruka as the half time whistle blew
"Enoshima is... losing." said Ushio
"They managed that last goal though." said Michiru
"Baka, a goal like that was clearly a gimme." said Maho
"Agreed." said Nana "That goal was too easy for them."
On the bench;
"What was that!?" said Mai "We're losing badly here!"
"But look at the situation we're in!" said Suzuka "Tsukasa and I are the only one's on the field with real experience playing against these girls. Most of the second years on the field never got a chance to play last year, and our first years have no experience playing opponents like this."
"You're right, sorry."
"What are we gonna do now?" Asuka asked
Mai paused for a few moments to think.
"Coach?" said Saito
"Alright," said Mai, finished thinking "I highly doubt this will make a difference but... Chloe, wanna play?"
"Do I?" Chloe replied earnestly
"You're one of the three international level players we have. You're going in for Tsukasa." said Mai, and Tsukasa nodded "Miki, you're going in for Yuzuki as usual. You're our Libero, so show us what you can do."
"Right, coach!" said Miki
"'Three international level players'? Is she including me in that?" Suzuka asked Keiko
"You and I are members of Nadeshiko Japan, and Chloe used to play for Les Bleues."
On the field;
The second half began and Enoshima got a better start this time. The addition of Chloe allowed the offense to pull some maneuvers that caught Aoba off guard, allowing Enoshima to score twice within the first ten minutes. But by the fifteen minute mark, Aoba had got it's groove back, and Enoshima was pushed back.
"Oh no, you don't! Suzuka shouted as she slide tackled the ball out from the feet of Aoba's Forward, preventing her from scoring. But Suzuka's heel had scrapped the players ankle, causing her to fall forward. This was a foul, and the ref gave Suzuka a yellow card. "Are you kidding me!?"
"That was a clear foul." said the ref "Now unless you want a red card, you won't complain and get back to the game."
"Let it go, Captain." said Yukari
The game resumed with a free kick by Aoba High, which Amuro barely managed to save. The score was still 3-4 in Aoba's favor. With thirteen minutes left, Keiko, Yukari, Suzuka and Chloe pulled off a difficult maneuver that let them slip through Aoba's defense and put another goal away, tying the game.
In the stands;
"They finally tied it up!" said Ryo
"Yes," said Maho "but our girls all look tired, and they can't make any more subs."
"Eight minutes left." said Nana "This is gonna be close."
"Come on, Enoshima!" Michiru shouted
On the field;
"Come on girls," said Suzuka "Let's get one more goal, then we can play defense for the rest of the game."
"HAI!" The team shouted, though most of the girls sounded exhausted
Despite what Suzuka said, most of the team was too tired to mount any real attack, while Aoba High's players, with no subs, hardly looked fazed.
The clock wined down fast, with neither team scoring, but the ball always remained on Enoshima's side of the field. Finally, there were only a few seconds left.
"If I can save this, we can try and win with a PK shootout." Keiko thought as an Aoba Midfielder finally broke through and kicked the ball straight past Amuro. Keiko managed to slide in and deflect the shot, but the ball hit the post and went in. It was Aoba's goal.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEEEEP
The game was over, Enoshima had lost 4-5. At first, hardly anyone seemed to believe it, but the reality quickly sunk in, and most of the team was soon in tears.
In the stands;
"They... they lost." Michiru said slowly
"If Aizawa had been a little faster..." said Maho
"Don't go blaming our big sister!" Hiroki and Ryo said in unison
"I wasn't going to."
"Kakeru?" said Nana
"Sometimes, these things just happen." Kakeru replied as the two teams bowed to each other and walked off the field "Darn shame, but what can you do? It's nobody's fault. I can't say I'm not disappointed, but I'm proud of Keiko, Yuki-chan, the entire team, for making it this far."
"Same here." said Ushio
"Onee-chan's team played good." said Koichi as Saki comforted Hiroki
On the bench;
"After all that, we lost." said Moka in a defeated tone, tears streaming down her face like most of the team
"I'm sorry, girls." Keiko sobbed "If I had been a little faster...."
"It wasn't your fault." Suzuka assured as Saito embraced Keiko comfortingly
"Listen girls." said Mai, gaining everyone's attention "I know we lost earlier than we did last year, but you girls played your best, no one can say you didn't do your best. Even though we lost today, getting to this big tournament is a big achievement in itself, especially for our first years. We made it this far, and I'm... I'm..."Mai was starting to cry herself "I'm so proud of all of you!"
"You say that every year." said Nagisa through her own tears "And every year, you mean it."
The team went back to Enoshima, where the entire school, all their friends and families, and Haruhi with her arm in a sling, were waiting for them. They were given a hero's welcome, despite the loss.
After fifteen minutes of being patted on the back, and comforted by her family, Keiko suddenly felt sick and left for the bathroom.
"Kei-chan?" Yuki inquired when she and Chloe found Keiko in the bathroom, just in time to see her throw up in the sink "Are you okay?"
"I'm okay." Keiko replied wearily "Just a little nauseous. With the Nationals over for us, and a big weight off our shoulders, I guess this is my body's way of letting out all the built up stress."
"It's not uncommon for a female athlete's body to react like that." said Nana, who just turned up behind them
"You sure you're all right, Keiko?" Chloe asked
"I'm sure I'll be fine after a good night's rest." Keiko said reassuringly
"Then let's go home girls." said Nana, and they obliged
Keiko believed that her body was just letting out built up stress now that they were out of Nationals. Little did she realize, that was not the case.