IN THESE GIRLS, HOPE IS A MUSCLE. By Madeleine Blais. 263 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $21. TOWARD THE end of this extraordinary, if peculiarly titled, book, Kathleen Poe, a starting forward on the 1992-93 Amherst (Mass.) High School Lady Hurricane basketball team, describes the things that transform a mere athlete into a champion basketball player:
"There's this feeling that you get. Once you get it, you can get it back again and again, just thinking about the game. It's when you can't distinguish between the emotions that are driving you, but you know they're all there and they want the same thing. . . . It happens when you take every last feeling of indignation and resentment, love and confidence, onto the court. When the court is your outlet for this feeling, you can't lose."
This spirit drives and defines the Lady Hurricanes through the 92-93 campaign, which Ms. Blais, a former Pulitzer Prize winner, lovingly and painstakingly chronicles here as a group of young women capture the hearts and imagination of a west Massachusetts town.
Many books have examined a year in the lives of male athletes, but few have examined the female athletic psyche. Certainly none has done as thorough a job as this one.
"In These Girls," introduces the reader to point guard Jamila Wideman and forward Jen Pariseau, the senior co-captains of the Hurricane team that narrowly missed the western Massachusetts finals the previous year and upon whose shoulders the hopes and aspirations of a team and a town fall.
Ms. Wideman, a reserve guard on the Stanford women's team that played in this past weekend's Final Four, and Ms. Pariseau, who plays on the Dartmouth team that won the Ivy League championship this year, have been longtime friends.
But as the 1992-93 season begins, their relationship is strained as Ms. Pariseau realizes that what had always been a friendship based on the equality of their talents, has changed as Ms. Wideman, a tennis and track champion, emerges as the true star of the Hurricanes.
Then there's the coach, Ron Moyer, who alternately functions as cornball comedian, psychiatrist, drill sergeant and buddy, all in an attempt to bring the best out of a group of athletic underachievers.
There are others, of course, who come together to forge the team's identity, but none perhaps more compelling than Ms. Poe, who has ended the previous season embarrassed and unsure of her abilities, but who midway through the season, adopts the persona "Skippy," which allows her to regain her athletic self-respect.
Ms. Blais, a teacher at the University of Massachusetts, one of three colleges in Amherst, the home of writer Emily Dickinson, smartly melds the haughty image of the quirky town with its desire for athletic glory, hardly the presumed pursuit of an academic village.
Likewise, Ms. Blais' decision to trace the power of sports through the exploits of a girls basketball team is inspired.
The American culture is just now coming to the opinion that female competitors come in sizes and shapes other than the small and dainty models presented in gymnastics and figure skating.
Female athletes still must struggle for acceptance. They continue to face demeaning comparisons about their achievements and ugly stereotypes surrounding their femininity.
The media do little to counter public perceptions and to aid the cause of women's athletics. For instance, you likely saw more on the team managers of the four teams in the men's NCAA semifinals this past weekend than on any of the competitors in the women's event.
Here's hoping that "In These Girls" is just the first of many explorations into the mind set of female athletes, and that all of them are as insightful and as moving.
Milton Kent is a sports columnist and reporter for The Evening Sun.