When teams travel internationally to play preseason exhibition games, it’s usually more about the experience than the competition itself.
Even ONU women’s soccer coach Mark Batman, who took his team to Europe in the beginning of August for an 11-day foreign tour, said that “it was a good experience for [the team], but more important is the relationship and culture piece they get from that trip.
“Soccer is not the priority on that trip, it’s kind of the balance of soccer and socializing.”
That held true for most of the team, but not for McKenna Welsh.
The redshirt sophomore is coming off of an ACL tear that cost her the entire 2016-17 season, during which her team won the OAC regular season title and was a goal away from an NCAA Tournament berth.
Welsh used the playing time in Europe to regain confidence in her left knee, getting used to planting and pushing and utilizing her natural speed, which had set her apart during her freshman season.
Welsh needed the Europe trip to prove to herself that she could do it, that she could make it back from what seemed like the end.
When it happened, she didn’t hear a loud pop or feel extreme pain.
It was two days before the team’s first game, a road contest at Kenyon, during a scrimmage at practice. Welsh, who would have been featured alongside senior forward Shelby Stephens in one of the OAC’s deadliest offensive attacks, was on a breakaway when she planted awkwardly while taking a shot.
“At first I didn’t think it was terribly bad, you hear of the typical really loud pop and a lot of pain, but I wasn’t even in a ton of pain,” Welsh said. “So I got up, walked to the training room with [team trainer Chandalar West], and then a little later on they said it felt looser, so I got the MRI and they said it was torn. Completely torn.”
“I thought I had just sprained something, so I was kind of in shock.”
Welsh, who had started 15 games and was second on the team in goals scored as a freshman, was expecting to have the opportunity for an encore performance.
Instead, she would have to watch the entire season from the sideline.
“It was terrible,” Welsh said. “At first, you kind of expected the worst. Like, if I did tear it, I would have to get through that. But when [West] actually told me the results of the MRI, I wasn’t exactly expecting that. And she said it right before practice, so then it was just hard sitting during practice, knowing that this is what I would be doing all season.”
“The first game was difficult, not being able to do anything. I thought that, as the games would go on, watching would get easier. But it just didn’t.”
After surgery on Sept. 23, Welsh endured months of daily rehab, which she said was harder mentally than physically.
“It was hard for me just trying to get back, wondering if you’re going to be able to play at a high level again,” Welsh said. “I think going to rehab every day was nice because I was used to working out every day, so the physical part was a lot easier than the mental. I was always a little worried, like, would I be able to come back the same?”
After the first six months of rehab, Welsh was cleared to play, but at her own pace. She played limited minutes in the team’s spring games and played about half of each game while in Europe, as Batman rotated in different sets of forwards.
On Thursday, the team held their first practice of the year. They performed conditioning tests, which Welsh did without her cumbersome knee brace. She said that things went well and hopes to play this season without it, although she still wears it during certain practice drills.
“They said a year out from surgery I could start progressing out of it. And since I’m doing pretty well, I could probably bump it up a couple of weeks and see how it goes,” Welsh said.
While Welsh said that she isn’t “100 percent back yet,” she said that she’s “definitely getting there,” and expects to be full-go by the team’s first game on Sept. 1.
“She’s getting there,” Batman said. “Europe was great for her. She got progressively better as the trip went on, so that’s positive, and hopefully that trend will continue in the preseason.”
As a forward who used her speed to blow by defenders during her freshman season, Welsh said that she has had to learn how to play differently while recovering from the ACL tear.
“I think I’ve picked up a lot of other things, like thinking before I play. Before, I felt a lot of stuff came naturally to me, but now, mentally, the game has changed. I have to think a lot before doing passes and taking people on,” Welsh said. “I think it’s helped [change] my view on the field.”
Welsh still feels that her speed will be one of her biggest strengths as she recovers fully in the coming weeks. And although the recovery process has been slow for Northern’s fastest forward, she said that she has seen a drastic difference in her confidence level over the past month.
“I definitely see a difference, even between our first practice in training for Germany and today,” Welsh said Thursday. “Like, even just in a couple weeks, I can see a difference.”
Batman and the Polar Bears will need a confident, healthy Welsh if they hope to retain the OAC crown this season.
Northern has made it to the OAC Tournament Finals two straight seasons, but has lost both times — once in penalty kicks to Capital in 2015 and once in overtime to Mount Union in 2016. They missed the NCAA Tournament both years as a result.
This year, the team hopes to get over the hump and make it to the national tournament for the first time in five years.
“I think that’s definitely something that’s on the returning players’ minds,” Batman said. “They had a couple hiccups through the season last year that probably cost us that at-large bid, so I think they have an understanding that nothing’s ever guaranteed, and disappointment is a great motivator for them.”
This year’s team will need to fill Stephens’ shoes, as she led the team in goals scored the last two seasons. Stephens, along with fellow seniors Michaela Gutierrez and Missy Ward, were all given all-region honors last year.
The Polar Bears will return senior forward Anna Niemeyer, however, who led the team in goals her freshman season, as well as a healthy contingent of starters from a year ago.
Hannah Reich, a four-year starting defender will be back, following what Batman called a “fantastic” showing in Europe. Defending OAC Freshman of the Year Meagan Grierson will be back for her sophomore year at goalkeeper, while fellow sophomore Haley Moses, who was named All-OAC last year as a midfielder, will return as well.
In all, ONU will return nine players who started in at least one game last season, alongside Welsh.
They will mix experience with youth as the team also welcomes 11 freshmen to this year’s roster, several of whom Batman believes can contribute right away.
In a vote taken this week by OAC coaches, Northern was predicted to win the conferenceagain this season. They won the vote in a landslide, receiving 54 points to second-place Capital’s 37.
The team has come within one goal of an NCAA Tournament berth the past two seasons. With Welsh and a number of key returners back this season, this year the Polar Bears will look to break through to the big dance. This is the year. It has to be.
“I think we’ve been so close these past two years that we’re kind of like, ‘This is going to be the year,’” Welsh said. “We keep getting better every year, like my freshman year we didn’t win the regular season and last year we did. So I think we keep getting closer, and it’s motivation for all of us. We’re so close to being where we want to be.”