The Winner's Curse
Leera Heggle waited impatiently for the team to finish their stretches. The captain of Team Lost Desert was always the first to practice, and with the Altador Cup starting soon, he needed his team in tip-top shape. Especially with Lamelle Turrow transferring to Team Maraqua.
Some of his more superstitious teammates had blamed it, along with some recent accidents, all on the “Winner’s Cruse”. Leera did not believe in such nonsense that had captured the minds millions of Neopians, fan and athlete alike. True, almost no former winners had managed to even make it to the top bracket until last year. But if such a curse had existed, wouldn’t it have been broken now? Darigan Citadel managed to make it to the podium last year, the first former champion to do so.
The Lost Desert Team would be the first champion to win the gold again. He was sure of it.
Even with so many fans leaving. Blast that supposed curse, blast that Faerieland was blasted right out of the sky... Now they had sympathizer fans after their recent disaster.
But no matter. Fans were a great help, of course, but it was really their performances in the matches that would determine the winner. Although he was sad to see Lamelle Turrow leave, some promising new blood to train was nice.
Finally, the team had finished warming up and it was time to play. He grabbed a Yooyuball--their mechanical Yooyuball release wasn’t on at the moment--and threw it to Vonde Cayle.
“Try to get it past me.” The Kau’s deep voice echoed throughout the empty stadium, making sure that everyone heard. Vonde just nodded and got into his position as left forward at the other end of the field. Leera snorted and ground his hooves, and intimidation tactic he often employed. He snickered a little when he saw how nervous Vonde looked.
Vonde passed the Yooyu to Derbi, who faked a right and passed it back to Vonde. The Wocky caught it and, sliding forward, flung it towards to the goal. Leera dived towards the Yooyu, narrowly catching it in his sling. He held it up triumphantly, then tossed it to Luvea so he could replace it with a Fire Yooyu. His own skills with that were mediocre to him; more goals from opponents were scored with that ball than any other because of the speed.
Luvea handed it to Derbi, who tossed it to Vonde again. Vonde dashed forward, tossing the Yooyuball to the very edge of the goal. The Desert Kau smiled smugly, sure that he would catch it easily.
The Fire Yooyu blazed past him into the goal, clipping his shoulder on the way.
“Leera!” Vonde called out, unsure why the goalkeeper was clutching his left shoulder. “What happened?”
“Yooyu just clipped my shoulder,” Leera grunted, brushing himself off. “It’s nothing.”
“If you say so...,” Vonde said, looking slightly guilty. “Let’s practice defense!” he shouted to the two defenders, motioning for Derbi to get the defenders into position. “Are you sure you’re okay? Look, the Practice Team is coming soon, if you’d like to sit out awhile...”
“I’m fine,” he snapped. Vonde reared back a bit. “Really, you’re making such a big deal about a little scrape.”
The Desert Wocky sighed. “Sorry, I guess I’m just nervous. This is our first practice without Lamelle, and with the Curse-”
“Don’t believe in such nonsense. There is no curse.” Vonde just shook his head, muttering under his breath as he went to consult with the captain of the Practice Team. Leera swung his arm around a few times, wincing a bit at the burn.
It’s not too bad. I’ll be fine in a little while.
Practice went on without much incident. Though his shoulder still ached a bit, Leera was sure that exercising was the solution. So he did. Practice makes perfect; isn’t that what they always said?
True, his muscles were still aching and even burning a tad bit like a Fire Yooyu. But wasn’t that just the normal soreness you could get from hard exercise for weeks?
Yup. Just the normal burn. No pain, no gain, after all.
Leera massaged his shoulder, trying to prevent capturing the notice of Tonie Plessix, the goalkeeper for Maraqua. If anyone found out, they would attempt to exploit his weakness, slight as it was.
But Leera knew he was fine. There was no curse. He would expertly block every attempted goal. They would show Neopia that they, the Lost Desert, the previous winners, were obviously the most superior team.
The crowd was cheering; the roar of that crazy Techo Super-Fan was particularly standing out to him. He glanced to his left and quickly found the source--the door leading to the locker-rooms was opening, and his team was leading the way to the field.
His team. His golden team, the team he had worked so hard to train, so hard to get to this moment. He watched as they came, first Derbi, then Vonde following that new Kiko player--Rhee, if he remembered correctly--with Luvea bringing up the rear. Maraqua’s team followed Luvea, and Leera felt a twinge of sadness as he saw Lamelle take her position on the other end of the field.
But he could no longer consider Lamelle a friend. Not on the field, at least. Here, she was just another member of the Maraquan team.
Here, she was just another opponent to beat.
Leera could hear the announcers telling the crowd stats, how Maraqua and the Lost Desert were the two favorites this year. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths and focusing on the cheering of his fans.
“...to become a solid group of defenders.” A moment of silence from both announcers and fans. (Yes, even that Super-Fan.) The center cement circle of the field opened, and the platform was raised to reveal the first type of Yooyuball...
It was only a minute and a half into the game, and it was already a close match. Team Lost Desert was only up by one point; the score was four to three. Although Leera had managed to make some excellent saves, he just didn’t seem to be on his best game. Lamelle had managed to get a Snow Yooyu past his wide girth twice now, something that had never happened when she was on his team.
He shook his head, ears flopping. Focus! You can’t let them get us into a tie game! The circle opened again, revealing a Clockwork Yooyu. Great. The exploding one...
Derbi lunged for the ball, but Lamelle managed to slide her sling in and steal it from her. Lamelle practically flew across the field, expertly dodging the defensive efforts of Luvea as the ball started glowing red. Why did we give her up? Leera wondered.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion as Lamelle swung the ball towards him. All his senses were hyperaware as he jumped for it. The sweat on his face was all he felt, and the sound of his heartbeat muffled the crowd’s cheering. He reached for the ticking, glowing sphere, hands outstretched and injured muscle burning as he attempted to scoop it into his sling.
BOOM! The clock had run out of seconds, and the explosion was enough to send Leera, with all his poundage, flying forward. He landed face-first in the dirt, and the sounds of hurried footsteps and a voice calling for the Neohospital slowly faded into a sea of black...
“Ohhh... What’s making me ache so much?” Leera groaned, slowly opening his eyes to a squint. All he could make out of his room was that it was a bright white, that there was a Neotelevision in the room, and that he wasn’t alone. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital,” a familiar voice replied. Vonde, perhaps? “That Clockwork Yooyu had its explosion power set too high. The ACRC has sent the company a strongly worded letter telling them they must be more careful in manufacturing their products.”
Leera’s foggy memory was starting to come back to him. A Yooyu had exploded... At the game! He had been knocked unconscious, and the score was so close...
“Did we... Did we win?” he asked, wincing as he tried to sit up fully. A gentle paw pushed him back down. Opening his eyes completely, he saw that the paw belonged to Vonde, one of the other four members of his team watching him.
The team hung their heads. “Without you, we lost that game ten to seven...,” Vonde said softly.
“And it only got worse,” Luvea continued. “We kept los-”
“What do you mean, it got worse?” Leera asked. “The game was yesterday!” The team exchanged a look.
“Leera,” Luvea said, “that game was weeks ago. You’ve been unconscious. We had to find a replacement for you-”
“Who, by the way, couldn’t tell what a Yooyu was if it deposited itself into his sling!” Derbi interrupted.
“Yes, Derbi, we know he wasn’t up to Leera’s standards,” Luvea continued with a pointed glare in Derbi’s direction. He turned back to Leera. “The finals started yesterday. And since we lost almost every game since the accident... Well...”
“We’re in the fourth bracket,” Derbi groaned.
Fourth bracket. The spot for the underdogs and underachievers. Not his team.
Speaking of his team, they were waiting with bated breath for his response. Vonde broke the nervous silence first.
“It’s... It’ll be alright. We just had an unfortunate accident, a-and next year, we’ll be at the top again! It was just another accident...,” he trailed off.
Leera shook his head. “No, Vonde. You were right all along. It was the Winner’s Curse... And if we can’t break it, this will just keep happening...”
An hour later, the team left Leera in peace. He stared at the ceiling, trying to think of new strategies, new techniques to help his team break the Curse...