Two games into the season for both Notre Dame Pandas senior Abby Unkraut and Dixie Heights Colonels boys soccer junior Austin Seng, it happened.
The two soccer players landed a certain way and tore their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL). Unkraut tried to come back into that game against Cooper on a sunny Saturday afternoon but Seng left the home game against Scott on crutches.
Although they later discovered the bad news, they stuck to the sidelines helping out any way they could. Notre Dame Head Coach Suli Kayed said that does not always happen.
“If that would have happened to me when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have come out of my room,” Kayed said. “I would have stayed at home and not taken it well. Abby’s been to every practice. She’s become part of our staff. She even has some things to say after games and at halftime.”
The University of Georgia commit has been a positive asset for the 12-3-2 defending state champion Pandas. Unkraut returned to play for Notre Dame her senior year after playing club soccer only as a junior.
“This is the sport. This is what happens, so taking a positive mindset to this is so imperative because if I take a negative mindset, it’s going to take me back,” Unkraut said. “Staying with the team commitment to be the team captain, I just (have to) show up and be involved. It’s a team sport.”
Seng still has his senior year to look forward to.
“I’m able to walk on it now,” Seng said. “It only really hurts if I straighten it out or bend it real far. Some people continue to play not knowing they’ve torn it.”
The Colonels have had a winning season, currently standing at 14-2-3 ahead of Wednesday’s 34th District title game against St. Henry. They came into the season as one of the favorites to win the brutal 9th Region after finishing region runner-up to Covington Catholic last year.
“Austin’s a fantastic kid. He’s been the most supportive,” said Trey Crone, Dixie Heights head coach. “He’s been high energy. He’s had a positive mindset through the whole thing. He works his tail off in therapy. He’s trying to get back as soon as possible. He’s been a bright spot on our bench.”
The Pandas have gone 14-3-2 so far this season. Last year, Notre Dame was undefeated and won the state championship. Though this year’s record has its blemishes, the Pandas are unbeaten against 9th Region foes.
The Pandas play Beechwood on Wednesday for the 35th District title.
“They’ve made some great changes in the midfield where I used to play. These girls can play any position,” Unkraut said. “It’s fabulous to watch and I really love to see the heart and the effort that these girls pour out. They’ve done a great job. I don’t think they even flinched when I got hurt. I’m really happy that I’m on the team.”
“She gives it her all 24/7. She does everything on and off the field that she needs to do. Her grades are perfect,” said Larissa Shoemake, Notre Dame senior, of her teammate, Unkraut. “She’s just a tremendous role model and the perfect high school athlete that you want to be.”
Unkraut is 41 days post-operation.
“I had my right ACL done two years ago and so this is my second time going through this and so I’m definitely doing things differently,” Unkraut said. “I’m pushing my limits each day like I’ll bend my knee to 120 (degrees) every day. It’s just things like that. I have something to get back for.”
She is committed to the University of Georgia. She’ll head to Athens in July to play for the Bulldogs and head coach Keidane McAlpine.
“He’s been beyond supportive. I use the word that he’s an angel sent from God because he has been anything but supportive to me,” Unkraut said of McAlpine. “He told me he’s going to help me if I need it and that when I get to Georgia, if there are things that I’m missing or are lacking, he said that he’ll take the personal time to help me get there.”
Unkraut’s lone goal of the year came in a 2-0 win at Bishop Brossart to open the season Aug. 10. She burned three Mustangs to score.
“I don’t score often. It felt great. It was like, ‘Now I get why people love to score. This is what they look forward to doing.’ I was just really happy that it slipped tough,” Unkraut said. “I just looked up, saw the corner and tried to place it as best as I could. I didn’t even see those defenders. I just shot it.”
Other local athletes who have similarly torn their ACL, a tissue that connects the shin bone to the thigh bone at the knee, include Simon Kenton senior defender Katey Gadzala, who returned to action from an ACL tear on her right leg last year.
“It was awesome,” Gadzala said. “It is one of the best feelings. I heard everyone yelling for me, ‘Go Katey.”
Simon Kenton Head Coach Hillary Johnson said five Pioneers over the last year have torn their ACL. Junior forward Avari Hall received clearance to play and two others are serving as team managers. Another decided not to play this year.
“I have never seen anything like that,” said Johnson, a former head coach at Newport Central Catholic. “In my five years at NCC, we only had three girls tear their ACLs and one of them was at the very beginning of the year.”
Johnson said players and coaches attend ACL tear prevention training.
Gadzala has had her challenges playing for the Pioneers, a roster that also includes freshman midfielder Megan Gadzala, her sister.
“I mostly think it’s a mental thing. I had to get in the right head space,” Katey Gadzala said. “In my first game back, I just had to make sure I was confident in what I was doing when I was playing.”
Katey Gadzala did her time in rehab to be able to play this year. She’ll tell you it is all about balance.
“I think my physical therapist helped me with that,” Gadzala said. “They made sure I wasn’t pushing myself to hard, but pushed me hard enough to where I was able to get back a few weeks early.”