James Dickinson Photo
Most of the field lights are extinguished, it's almost 8:30 p.m., and yet L.C. Bird's varsity boys' soccer team is still running suicides.
Coach Seth Kistner stands, hands in pockets, back turned to the few remaining parents, while the boys on the sideline anticipate his shout of "Go!" The players race up to Kistner, turn around and speed back to the sideline. "Go!" It's 48 degrees, almost chilly enough to see your breath. A hooded Ahu shifts his feet as he waits for his brother, Aung, to be released by the coach.
"Come on, brother!" calls Ahu, as the Bird varsity team — felled earlier that evening in a 10-0 loss to Monacan — straggles off the field. Janey Neff has a blanket wrapped around her waist like a sarong and a black leather coat on top, ready to drive the boys home after their games.
Aung, unfazed by the loss, seems his normal, congenial self. It was "so sad" to lose to the Monacan team — a group of boys expected to rank fourth in the competitive Dominion District conference — but he doesn't seem to be too depressed by the result of the game, which was called 18 minutes early in what's known as the "mercy rule," or less politely as the slaughter rule. The refs figured 10-0 was too much for the losing team to recover from, so they blew the whistle.
Bird's varsity team is three years into a rebuilding effort, notes Kistner, a Thomas Dale High graduate who played soccer through 10th grade. "I inherited a mess," he says. Bird typically lands in the bottom of the Dominion District boys' soccer rankings. And despite the Skyhawks' record of 0-3 after the March 23 Monacan game, the team is improving in fundamentals and attitude.
Aung, who plays forward and occasionally midfielder, "has a lot of speed," Kistner notes. "He's a hard worker, never gives up a play." In the Monacan game, he didn't start but played part of the first half and some of the second, until the game was called.
He got in there once in a while and gained control of the ball but more often was apart from the action, guarding a Chiefs player. Ahu, on the other hand, is more of a scrapper.
His JV team had a much more satisfactory evening, tying Monacan 1-1 before the varsity game started. Ahu scrambled into the thick of things, sometimes turning the ball around toward his goal, passing it to another player — and once or twice kicking it offsides. He's a hustler but sometimes is a little incautious.
Kistner says Ahu would be a good fit on the varsity team, but this year he simply had too many players to allow a freshman to play. Next year may be a different story, though.
Janey, watching the first of four games during one week, says she hopes Aung gets lots of playing time. The coach describes both boys as hard workers. Aung's only complaint is that the team doesn't communicate well on the field — all the shouting on that chilly Monday evening appeared to be coming from the Monacan Chiefs.
Ahu wasn't sure he wanted to be part of the JV team — he earned a spot on the squad but then decided he wanted to spend the time working out at the YMCA instead, prompting howls of "No!" at school and in the Neff home. But he made up his mind to quit, displaying his stubborn streak, Janey says.
After a week of tedious treadmill runs and stationary bike rides, though, Ahu was ready to play soccer. He says he wants to play next year, too.
The sport is a major time commitment; when they aren't playing the scheduled 15 games this season, the brothers are practicing after school or, earlier in the year, playing in scrimmages. On game nights, they get home as late as 9:30, and then there's homework to do.
Ahu and Aung look exceptionally young in their floppy blue-and-white travel uniforms and knee socks — they stand shorter than the other players, and both boys wind up guarding pencil-thin Monacan players who stand head and shoulders above the smaller, compact brothers. Coach Kistner says the language barrier occasionally arises, but not too often. Aung watches the other team members and follows along, as does Ahu.
They grew up playing soccer in Myanmar, where the sport is very popular. Aung's hero is David Beckham, while Ahu's favorite professional player is Brazil's Ronaldo. What the boys lack in formal training, they make up for in quickness and drive.
Coach Kistner says he'd like his players to run track or cross country, to improve their speed and endurance on the field. Aung, for one, isn't particularly interested. "Sports are not that important," he says. Runners, he adds, have to eat a special diet, and he wants no part of that. "It's just a game."
But on the darkened Monacan field, with Aung and the rest of the Skyhawks running suicides until the coach tells them to stop, it seems like more than a game.