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The school was starting to sit up and take notice.
But then Hammond's confidence was rattled. A few days before the district tournament, where Soldan would face killer schools like Rosary and Aquinas-Mercy, the coach found half his team in the school gym, messing around with a basketball instead of lifting weights downstairs as they were supposed to. His well-toned sense of self-control went pole-vaulting through the roof.
These kids were in no position to ignore his instructions. They were good and getting better, but they were a long way from being best.
Hammond barked at the players to get back down to the weight room.
Without thinking, the team's 17-year-old right forward, Armin Smajic, barked back.
Hammond's eyebrows arched toward the ceiling. Come again? He knew forwards like Smajic were traditionally arrogant. They were, after all, the ones who made most of the goals, and though you wanted them to be bold and aggressive, this kind of insubordination wouldn't stand.
"He told me to wait!" Hammond says. "The military part of me comes out sometimes, I guess, but I cannot tolerate disrespect. I mean, I didn't know half of what these kids knew about soccer, but there has to be a certain amount of leadership coming from the coaches.
"They're teenagers," Hammond says. "They're going to talk back and give you a hard time. They want to challenge you, and that's normal, but you have to put your foot down immediately.
"I told Smajic to stay right where he was. Period. He was off the team."
Hammond's decision wasn't based on anger as much as it was on the fact that Smajic talked back to him in front of the team. What these kids needed was a sense of loyalty to their team. As individuals they were bold and skilled, but as a team they were shy and wanting.
Smajic, for example, was a good right forward. There was no doubt in Hammond's mind that he could get a college scholarship simply on the basis of his ability to keep the ball between his own two feet. But he wouldn't pass the ball. Smajic ran from one end of the field to the other without so much as a glance at the teammates who could help him, so by the time he got to the goal post, he was too worn out to shoot well.
Even though the district tournament was a few days away and Hammond was still reading how-to-play-soccer books, he knew the basics of team playing. "It's the same way in life," Hammond says. "You can't go through life by yourself. I don't care how smart you are, somebody always helps you up along the way. Nobody makes it by themselves.
"If they really want to be something, really want to do something, they've got to work for it," he adds. "There's no way around it. There are no short cuts."
Smajic, faced with accepting the consequences of his behavior or watching his team move forward in the season without him, waited two days. Then he apologized to the coach. "I was really only mad for that one day," he says now, trying to deflect any perceived weakness in his action.
Hammond let him back on the team.
Except for the very first scrimmage against SLUH junior varsity, the Soldan Tigers had won every game they played. They entered the district tournament in late October with a total score of 72-7 and ranked third in their district, behind Aquinas-Mercy and Rosary. The team felt unbeatable.
In the first district game, against the sixth-ranked Crossroads Career Academy, the team played as a team and Soldan won 10-0. That night, to celebrate the victory, the team piled into the bus, pulled into a Schnucks parking lot and ate spaghetti made by Coach Miller's wife.
The next night, just before Soldan was scheduled to play second-ranked Rosary, Coach Hammond realized at the last minute that the team needed athletic tape and, instead of giving them his usual pregame pep talk, ran to the nearest Kmart. Later he would regret it.
"I always tell them I expect them to win," Hammond says. "I tell them they are probably some of the best soccer players in the district, and I know that for a fact. But I also tell them being the best soccer players doesn't guarantee that they'll win. I tell them they've got to play as a team, and if they don't, they'll lose.
"But I didn't tell them that night. It was the only time. I didn't give the speech before that game."
In addition, several of the players were down with the flu, so the bench, shallow to begin with, was now nonexistent. Edin Coralic was nervous, because 11 members of the team went onto the field knowing they would have to play the entire game. With no breaks.
For the first half, the players made do. No goals were scored by either side. In fact, there were only 15 minutes to go when Hammond, up in the tower, watched Rosary score the first goal of the game. He knew his boys were tired, could see they were losing focus, and Hammond felt an unexpected wave of helplessness threaten his reserve.
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