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“The important thing today, though, is you guys figured out a way to come from behind and win,” Coach J. —Benchwarmers
by John Feinstein
AR Test, Strong Female Character
Jeff and Andi, both sixth-graders at Merion Middle School, are trying out for the boys’ soccer team. There is just one issue: Andi is a girl, and the head coach, Coach J, thinks having a girl on the team would lower the boys’ moral. The principal forces Coach J to let Andi try out. But, Coach J, who has the final say on who makes the team, cuts Andi despite her more than competent tryout.
Both Andi and Jeff are furious because of the coach’s decision. Jeff made the team, but he knows Andi would be an asset to the team. The situation seems hopeless until he has an idea. His dad works at NBC Sports-Philadelphia as a reporter. Together, Andi, Jeff, and his dad devise a plan to get the media involved in Andi’s situation. They hope to pressure Coach J into letting Andi on the team. They were right; Andi is finally allowed to play soccer on the boys’ team.
It’s not smooth sailing once Andi makes the team. Coach J punishes both Andi and Jeff by benching them during games. There is a division on the team between the boys who think Andi should be included and those who don’t. This division costs the team the first few games of the season. When Andi makes a good play in the short amount of time she is on the field, Coach J realizes he is making a mistake. He learns to value Andi as a skilled player and eventually promotes her to a starter. By reluctantly acknowledging Andi’s skill, Coach J sets an example for the rest of the team. The boys come to appreciate Andi and they become a strong and cohesive team.
Benchwarmers is told in third person and focuses on Jeff, Andi, and Coach J’s points of view. This allows readers to understand each character’s background. Each character has to overcome adversities. For example, Jeff has to work hard to improves his soccer skills. Andi fights for her place on the team, taking a lot of bullying but eventually becoming a valued player. Coach J overcomes his chauvinistic beliefs and learns to appreciate Andi.
Benchwarmers’ main theme is doing what is best for the team. Andi is such a good player because she “creates chances for other people.” In addition, the team only starts winning games when they play to each other’s strengths. By the end of the book, good sportsmanship is important to all of the players. The boys support each other and Andi on the field. Even the opposing teams apologize for roughhousing Andi and compliment her skill.
While Benchwarmers focuses on soccer, the story also gives a good, age-appropriate insight on how the media works. It shows how a media story is approved, planned, and rehearsed. Learning about the media is interesting, but the many meticulous play-by-play game scenes might get old to readers who are not soccer fans. However, the characters are relatable and admirable for their perseverance and for supporting one another. Andi and Jeff work hard to prove themselves on the field. At the beginning, Coach J is stuck in his ways, but he redeems himself by the end. Although slightly dragged out, Benchwarmers will entertain soccer fans as it encourages them to work hard for what they believe.
- O’Shea, a female soccer player from another school, takes Andi aside after their match to warn Andi about the next team they’ll play, King of Prussia-North. O’Shea says King of Prussia-North’s coach doesn’t like girls on the boys’ soccer team, and he “makes your guy [Andi’s coach] look like a leader of the Me Too movement.”
- After Andi asks Jeff to the Halloween dance, she “gave him a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek.”
- During practice, Andi gets hit after scoring a goal. “Arlow, peeling back too late, slammed into [Andi] from behind and took her down.” Jeff and Diskin, another teammate, are furious because they think Arlow did it on purpose. One of the players “slammed into Arlow and sent him flying.”
- Diskin “jabs a finger into Arlow’s chest.” Diskin asks, “What is your problem, Arlow? Do you have something against girls? Is that it? Just admit it.” In response, Arlow “grabs Diskin’s arm and tries to wrestle him to the ground.”
- During a match, Andi gets kicked in the head by another player. “She felt a foot slam into her head. She cried out in pain and rolled over, holding the spot where the kick had landed.”
- A player from the opposing team “piles into” Andi, making her do a “face-plant.” She sees someone running towards the guy who had just taken her down and realizes it’s Arlow. “[Arlow] was screaming angrily as he pushed the guy down and began swinging at him.”
- During a soccer game, Jeff “slid a pass forward to Arlow, who pushed the ball to his left to Andi just as a KP-North defender plowed into him.” Jeff “went down” but “jumped up” and continued playing in the game.
- Jeff sees a player from the opposing team angrily rush towards Andi. Realizing the player intended to harm her, Jeff “cut the kid off with a diving tackle before he could pile into Andi.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- The boys debate over whether Andi should be on the soccer team. One player says if Andi wants to be on a team with boys, she has to understand she may get knocked around. Another player who supports Andi retorts, “Don’t be such a tool.”
- After Coach J is rude to Andi, Jeff tries to comfort her. Jeff says, “Just when you think he’s backing off acting like a jerk, he goes and proves again that he’s a jerk. Don’t let it bother you.”
- Heck is used three times. For example, Andi is upset because Coach J is bullying her. She takes it because she wants to remain on the team. “The worst part of it is, if I just say ‘The heck with you,’ and walk away from this team, he gets what he wants.”
- During a match, one of the players on the opposing team takes down Andi. Craig yells at him, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
- In regards to King of Prussia-North, another middle school female soccer player tells Andi, “I’d love to see you knock those jerks off their pedestal.”
- Jeff wants to ask Andi to the Halloween dance, but he is nervous. His friend tells him, “You can still be Prince Charming if you get off your butt and do something.”
- Jeff asks Andi if she is going to church Sunday morning because he wants to take her to an Eagle’s game. Andi laughs and replies, “My parents tried it with my brothers and me until I was about eight. Then they figured out we were all going just for the doughnuts. So we haven’t gone for a while.”
by Jill Johnson