A girl who would rather call the plays than lead the cheers…
At the dawn of the Title IX era, fictional girl quarterbacks were briefly all the rage (even Sweet Valley High got into the act), but none of them have as much fun getting the message across as RR Knudson’s Zan Hagen.
The Plot: 14 year old Suzanne “Zan” Hagen is horrified to discover on the first day of the fall semester that the gym is being renovated and the season has been cancelled for the award-winning girls’ basketball team. Horror turns to rage when she further discovers that the administration has made plans to bus the boys’ team to practice at “the YMCA, the Police Boys’ Club and the Pop Warner League gym” [emphasis mine], while the girls’ PE class has been exiled to a Home Ec classroom for a year of modern dance which Zan assures the reader “is my utter worse thing.”
Zan goes to plead her case to the school principal, who is gross and I pretty much hate him:
“I prefer your given name, Suzanne. Softer, more feminine. Yes, Suzanne, you’re becoming a lady now. You should cast aside silly ball games and turn to less aggressive, less tomboyish pursuits.”
“Well, dear, if you must be a sports fan, why not join he cheerleaders. Classy costumes, a few gentle leaps. You’d get to shout into that nifty new electric megaphone.”
“Competition, that seems to be your drive. Well, then, Suzanne, we have proper ways for a young lady to excel. Did you know that the Arlington County spelling bee comes along next month? Suzanne Hagen, Arlington County Spelling Queen.”
“Come in for a fatherly chat any time. Gladys, show this obstinate young lady to the door so she won’t be late for class. And make an appointment for another photograph for her cumulative record. This ugly one in a sweat-shirt is most unfeminine.”
When faced with such hostility, heroines of the era have only one choice: to forcibly bust their way into the boys’ club and best them at their own game to get the attention of someone in charge. When a tap-dancing demonstration by the girls’ PE teacher bodes the horrors to come, Zan shows up at football practice and bests the boys at wind-sprints to get the attention of hard-ass Coach O’Hara. Impressed, Zan talks him into turning over a muddy lacrosse field and some beat-up equipment to Zan and the girls opting out of Swedish Ring Dancing (“a smorgasbord of lunacy”) to play kickball.
Zan and her team are at first content to fly under the radar, especially once they realize that the principal is under the impression they are still attending dance class. But both Coach O’Hara and his team manager have taken note of the girls’ sheer determination, and start passing them more equipment for their field time. When they receive a football, they name their makeshift team Catch-11 and start practicing in earnest, managed by Zan’s intellectual kinda-boyfriend, Arthur Rinehart, who discovers that vintage boys’ sports novels with titles like Tiny Sonny: Ace Quarterback, contain a wealth of knowledge on the subject.
Coach O’Hara (who frankly seems a little bored with his complacent Varsity Generals team), becomes more and more involved advising Catch-11, moving them onto the regular football field and turning on the stadium lights so they can continue into the evening, and providing equal amounts of goading and encouragement to improve their game.
Zan and the girls are baffled by his enthusiasm:
“Remember, the harder you practice the harder it is to surrender during a game.”
By this time the boys’ Varsity team is starting to resent “their” coach’s interest in a bunch of girls, and are infuriated when Coach O’Hara announces that the third-stringers of the Generals will be playing a flag-football game against Catch-11. Creep-o Randy Boyle leads the catcalls (“Weirdos, retards, wild women… freak, psycho nut!”) and finally tackles Zan from the sidelines during practice, seriously injuring her wrist.
More determined than ever to play a real game, Zan rallies her troops as Rinehart issues press releases. It’s only a matter of time before the principal finds out what’s up, but it’s not until the third quarter of the game (“Doesn’t he know what’s going on in his own school?”), when Catch-11 have played the boys to a hard-earned tie. The principal shuts the game down immediately and Zan is sure that is marks the end of girls’ football at Arlington High, but Coach still has a few schemes up his sleeve.
The following Saturday they gather at Coach’s house where he surprises them with films of the game. The girls are critical of their performance and seriously discuss avenues of improvement. But for what end?
Well, Catch-11 will be given the opportunity to go the distance after all, because the only thing the principal loves more than traditional gender roles is free publicity for his school: Coach and a Washington Herald sportswriter in attendance at the truncated game convinced him to feature Catch-11 in four 5-minute quarters against the rival school’s JV squad during halftime at the big Dogwood Bowl.
Despite the fact that they’ve been renamed the “Generalettes” and introduced by the principal as “These saucy little girls [who] will give you twenty spunky minutes of football!” Zan and her team are determined to show that given the opportunity to play a full game, they can win.
In a suspenseful game, Catch-11 plays to… a tie. But by this time they have won over the crowd (and solidarity with even the rival team’s cheerleaders) and the demand for overtime is granted. Catch-11 wins the day, 19-13.
As a heroine, Zan has some pretty glaring flaws: she’s short-tempered, sometimes doesn’t play well with others, and single-minded when it comes to sports. She has no time for the fat, the uncoordinated, the unathletic, or those who prefer traditionally feminine pursuits. The frantic pace of the novel (131 pages in paperback) matches the narrator’s somewhat manic personality.
However, there is room for some personal growth, as Zan discovers that anklet-wearing girly-girl Aileen is a valuable asset to the team, being one of the few girls’ that had actually handled a football before, thanks to having dated a succession of players.
Despite Catch-11’s victory (which overshadows the Varsity team’s only managing a tie), they are not embraced by the school or the town in the end. While Coach O’Hara and the Washington Herald have their back, they grudgingly accept the fact that they are a source of resentment for the boys’ team.
Coach insists they be included at the year-end banquet, but the girls are relegated to card tables at the back of the room, and Zan is forced to swallow her bile as Randy Boyle is presented with an award for Good Sportsmanship (ugh!)
The boys are smug when the representative of the Washington Area Press Club steps up to the podium to award the Dogwood Bowl championship rings and MVP award… but then the reporter points out that the Generals only managed a tie and gives the rings to Catch-11 and MVP to Zan (Aileen: “Now I can give my boyfriend back his football ring. I earned my own!”)
Yeah! High school boys can pretty much be the worst, but real men recognize talent and ambition regardless of gender! Because it’s the 1970s and they don’t feel threatened by girls playing football! Just imagine what the 1980s will hold! You’ve come a long way, baby, etc.
(Ok, so maybe we were overly optimistic. Still, it’s a nice thought?)
Sequel Department: Knudson wrote three sequels following Zan and her athletic evolution: Zanbanger, in which she is kicked off of the girls’ basketball team for being “too aggressive” and campaigns for a spot on the boys’ team; Zanboomer, in which her baseball career is prematurely ended by an injury and she takes up distance-running; and finally she makes her way to the 1984 L.A. Olympics as a track and field competitor in the more-prosaically titled Zan’s Marathon.