A toxic field hockey coach meets his match in We Are the Wildcats, Siobhan Vivian’s latest Young Adult novel. Told from six perspectives, the story explores how the team members’ friendships are tested and strengthened over 24 suspenseful hours. If the book description is any indication, the team’s antics will lead to a shocking conclusion:
Tomorrow, the Wildcat varsity field hockey squad will play the first game of their new season. But at tonight’s team sleepover, the girls are all about forging the bonds of trust, loyalty, and friendship necessary to win. Everything hinges on the midnight initiation ceremony—a beloved tradition and the only facet of being a Wildcat that the girls control. Until now.
Coach—a handsome former college player revered and feared in equal measure—changes the plan and spins his team on a new adventure. One where they take a rival team’s mascot for a joyride, crash a party in their pajamas, break into the high school for the perfect picture. But as the girls slip out of their comfort zone, so do some long-held secrets. And just how far they’re willing to go for their team takes them all—especially Coach—by surprise.
Publisher Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers will release the novel on March 31, 2020, but you can read an exclusive excerpt today! We’re also thrilled to reveal the cover, which boasts stunning artwork by Dana Lédlová.
Love what you read below? You can pre-order We Are the Wildcats here. We also recommend checking out Vivian’s New York Times bestselling novel The List while you wait for the March release.
It is tradition that the fifth and final day of tryouts for the Wildcats’ varsity girls field hockey team be the most grueling of all. Though, real talk? It’s not like the others were a walk in the park. Roughly half the girls arrive to the field with a vague sense of what’s coming. The rest show up clueless. But there’s no telling the two groups apart because—knowing or not—this is it. Today is everyone’s last chance.
The girls mill around on the sidelines, taping up their sticks, their wrists, their ankles, cinching loose tank tops tight with little knots at their backs, rinsing out yesterday’s nasty from their mouth guards with squeeze bottles of icy water. It’s early enough that the air remains somewhat cool and the turf looks almost like real grass, with indifferent dewdrops clinging to blades of bright green plastic.
Summer break is just about over. Come Monday, a new school year begins. There is much the girls could discuss—first-day outfits, class schedules, summer gossip—but not a lot of chitchat happens, because Coach doesn’t want chitchat. He wants focus. And there’s really no need for team bonding yet because there is no team. Every varsity spot is up for grabs. Even girls who lettered last year aren’t safe. Even the ones who bled to bring home a second-place trophy at states could be cut.
Maybe should be cut.
At eight o’clock, a velvety knell rings out from the upper school’s bell tower. With it, heads collectively swivel, ponytails swish. Every eye is on Coach as he pushes open the heavy metal doors of the athletic wing and stalks toward them, clipboard in the crook of his arm, a can of Red Bull in hand, a baseball hat pulled down low over his shaggy blond curls.
Both the JV and freshman coaches nip at Coach’s heels. They are two much older and rounder versions of Coach, dads essentially, embarrassingly eager to assist him today. Dark wounds of sweat already bleed through their T-shirts.
The girls need no instruction. They quickly circle up and begin to stretch, clapping a slow-and-steady pulse for each position change. As they press and lean through lingering soreness, they watch-but-don’t-watch Coach inspect his field. Trying to gauge his mood. Sense what he might be thinking. They get only reflections of their own longing in his mirrored sunglass lenses.
Some girls spent the past summer secretly worried—rightfully so—that Coach would not be returning to West Essex this year. There is always the fear he will leave them for some better opportunity. He’s honestly too good to coach at the high school level, and especially a girls team. The very least they can do is win for him. Whether his decision to come back was because of them or in spite of them didn’t much matter. He came back. Thank God.
Coach lifts a silver whistle to his lips.
Warm-ups begin. Always the same circuit. A brisk mile run around the field’s perimeter. Then twenty-five push-ups. Then twenty-five crunches. Then twenty-five scissors. And lastly, a set of suicide sprints to lace the lines of the pitch.
It is now 8:30 a.m. Their hearts warm with blood, lungs flush with oxygen, the girls fetch their sticks and listen for Coach to call a skill drill. They gamely hope he goes with Tic-Tac-Toe or maybe Slalom, something chill to start things off. Instead, he cups his hands and bellows, “Figure Eights!”
The first sign they are in for it.
The other two coaches rush to set up cones, dotting the field with one for each girl. Then, at Coach’s next whistle, the girls hitch forward at their hips and begin pushing their orange balls with their stick blades in a tight, controlled infinity loop. Over and over they dance this twirl, eyes pinned on those orange balls to steady the spinning world, their abs and thighs and asses all fires stoked white-hot.
Fifteen grueling minutes later, Coach blows his whistle. It takes the girls’ brains a few nauseating seconds to register they are no longer in motion.
If this were any other day of varsity tryouts, the girls would pause for a quick water break while Coach handed out mesh pinnies in either white or navy for a scrimmage. Scrimmages are how Coach works through a Rubik’s Cube of roster possibilities, swapping players in and out of potential lines and positions, whittling these forty or so hopefuls down to his final squad of twenty.
Except today there will be no scrimmage.
There never is on the final day of tryouts.
Instead, the seniors drop their sticks and immediately set off on another mile run around the field’s perimeter, a thunder of tanned, toned legs. They are trailed by any juniors and sophomores who have endured this annual tradition before.
It always takes the new girls a few seconds to realize what’s happening. Some are already chugging water, some have gone to their bags for a towel to wipe their sweat or—the brave ones—to sneak a discreet look at their phones. Once they do realize, they sprint off in a panic to catch up to the pack. This elicits a chuckle from the experienced girls, but then it’s right back to business. There are twenty-five more push-ups, twenty-five more crunches, twenty-five more scissors, and another set of suicide sprints to complete.
It is 9:00 a.m.
Another whistle. Coach calls for “Shuttle!” next.
Groups of six girls quickly line up to sprint, receive, pass, sprint, receive, pass, sprint, receive, pass for fifteen minutes, until Coach’s next whistle starts the warm-ups over again, their third mile run, twenty-five more push-ups, twenty-five more crunches, twenty-five more scissors, and another set of suicide sprints.
At nine thirty he calls out “Clover!” and the cycle begins anew.
At ten, “Forehand Fades!”
At ten thirty, “Snake!”
They are ants scurrying under his magnifying glass. Every move examined, dissected. Coach shouts for them to keep their form, to increase their speed, to stay sharp, to dig deep. This despite the girls’ passes becoming sloppier, dragging as they grind on, the sun now searing high above them. The entire field gets unsettlingly quiet, save for the wooden slap of sticks against sticks, the pounding of cleats on turf, the groans of fatigue. And, of course, the trill of Coach’s unrelenting whistle.
The girls give Coach everything they’ve got, knowing he doesn’t ask of them what he doesn’t believe, deep down, they can deliver.
So they deliver.
That’s Coach’s magic.
That’s why the Wildcats win, year after year after year. Waist-high trophies. Team pictures on the front page of the local newspaper. Invitations to play around the country. Full-ride scholarships to Ivy League universities.
At eleven, “Chop Shots!”
At eleven thirty, “Triangles!”
Through portholes wiped in the fogged-up windows of the weight room, the varsity football players watch the girls, jaws hanging slack and stupefied. To them, and the West Essex student body at large, there’s something cultish and unsettling about the varsity girls field hockey team. Their devotion, their focus, their unquestioning commitment to Coach and to each other. For the four months that make up their season, their squad is impenetrable.
It should be said that West Essex’s football team has not made it to states in over a decade. Their last championship banner hangs dusty and faded from the gymnasium rafters. Yet it never strikes the boys as odd that they still dominate the fall pep rally, always announced last by the principal. The boys don’t question if they’ve actually earned the bleacher-stomping applause that beckons them, dressed in their jerseys and jeans, to burst through banners of butcher paper. Their arms simply lift in V shapes at varying intervals, summoning the student body to their feet. A reflex.
Boys default to kings. Their sovereign right to rule is never questioned.
The football players wait to be noticed, eager for their gaze to have some kind of effect on the girls, preferably embarrassment. That the girls never do annoys them, and eventually, they retreat from the windows. A silent acknowledgment that this is one kingdom beyond their reach.
This is why the field hockey girls would live on this field forever if they could. This blessed rectangle where their worth is wholly quantifiable, statistical, analytic black and white. How incredibly freeing it is to live a few hours each day where they don’t worry about being beautiful or sweet or modest or smart or funny or feminine. The only thing required of them here is to be their absolute best.
And so, on this day, one girl always pukes.
One girl always cries.
One girl always falls.
But they all keep going. Because being a Wildcat means everything.
At noon Coach blows his whistle one final time. The girls—cheeks mottled, drenched in sweat, muscles twitching, stomach sour, chests heaving—fall to their knees and look around at one another in awe. It seems almost cruel that not everyone who survived this will make the team.
But that’s how it is. Winners and losers.
They rise on wobbly legs, silently collect their belongings from the sidelines, and file from the field out to the paved cul-de-sac ringing the stately front of West Essex Upper School, turf cleats clicking atop the pavement. There, underneath the flag, they stand shoulder to shoulder, hearts paused in their chests, as Coach reads the names of his chosen ones.
In exactly twenty-four hours, this brand-new Wildcats team will take to the field for their first official scrimmage of the season, against the Oak Knolls Bulldogs. Scrimmages typically don’t mean shit, but it was Oak Knolls who beat them at states last year. It was the first time the Wildcats had lost a championship since Coach arrived at West Essex six years ago. And the girls would love nothing more than to start their new season by whooping some serious Bulldog ass. For Coach as much as for themselves.
The newest members joining this team—plucked from the JV and freshman squads, and one lucky eighth grader named Luci—are green, but their inexperience may well be an asset. The girls who played varsity last season each still nurse a secret wound, the thinnest of scabs capping a mountain of scar tissue. Mel, for not stepping up. Phoebe, for lying. Ali, for losing her shit. Kearson, for treason.
The only way the Wildcats will manage a win tomorrow is if all the varsity players—new and returning—come together and bond as a team. They must believe with their whole hearts that they’re in this together. Know without question that they’ll have one another’s backs until the final whistle. As Coach says, Team first, always.
That’s why they lost last season. That’s what broke them.
Luckily, there’s a tradition for this, too. A secret celebration that will take place tonight on this very field. It is the single facet of being a Wildcat that belongs entirely to the girls.
At least, that’s how it used to be.