The extra week off didn’t sit well with Alison Walls.
From the moment she received the diagnosis of a torn right ACL over the summer, the Park Hill sophomore vowed to be back to beat the recovery time of eight months. She ended up doing so, ready for the first day of soccer tryouts exactly seven months and six days after undergoing surgery.
“I was really frustrated by the six days,” Walls said. “I went for a checkup, and (the doctor) said six more weeks. I said, ‘That’s not Feb. 23.’”
Doctors did clear her for contact on Feb. 29, and she resumed her role as the starting striker for Park Hill. Through 14 games, she’s tallied 12 goals and eight assists for the Trojans — both team-highs — and the bulky knee brace provides the only lingering notion of a potentially devastating injury.
Walls originally injured her right knee in a 1-0 loss to Park Hill South in last year’s regular season finale — May 14, 2015.
Doctors initially helped her rehab from a strained MCL, and Walls came back for a Class 4 sectional, helping Park Hill beat Park Hill South 1-0 in overtime in the program’s first playoff trip in nearly a decade. She also played in a quarterfinal loss to St. Teresa’s Academy, seemingly in the clear of a major injury.
Instead, Walls tweaked the knee during a summer team camp, and doctors believe the full tear slowly occurred over time.
“I didn’t have like that instant moment,” Walls said. “I didn’t have that scream or anything so at least I didn’t have to go through that.”
Jenna Winebrenner, a junior defender, suffered her own knee injury scare during Park Hill’s first meeting in 2015 with Park Hill South. She missed the next game but ultimately avoided the type of rehab Walls endured, meaning she could relate to Walls’ frustrations.
“Not enough, but a little bit,” Winebrenner said.
After surgery on July 23, the eight-month recovery period put at least part of Walls’ 2016 season in doubt.
The diminutive striker decided not to settle for status quo, and with her dad Mike Walls’ encouragement, she set up a white board in the living room with a countdown to Feb. 23. That kept the goal for recovery in mind as she sat out her sophomore season of basketball and focused on a quick return to the pitch.
Walls didn’t quite meet her ambitious goal, but to avoid missing any games, much less a practice, showed her dedication to the process.
“That’s just who she is,” Winebrenner said. “Watching her recover, it was pretty hard for me, but she worked hard to be where she’s at.”
Walls’ return further bolstered a roster packed with returners. Park Hill lost just three seniors last season after going 19-7-3, one year after reaching 21 wins before an upset loss in the district championship game.
“For the last three years, we’ve been taking steps forward as a program,” said Park Hill coach Brandt Bell, an alum of the school in his fourth season as head coach. “It’s not so much a function of ‘this is the year,’ but this is the beginning of many years. We’ve set the bar higher and higher. Now, the job is to maintain it.”
Walls’ presence ensured Park Hill would maintain this season.
A starter from Day 1, she scored a team-high 17 goals last season as the featured striker, although she ironically missed tryouts that season due to the basketball team’s playoff run. Standout attacking midfielder Bella Catano might have assumed that role if Walls missed time, and freshmen midfielders Ayana Weissenfluh and Sarah Hibbeler, already starters, likely would’ve been forced into even more prominent roles on offense.
Walls provides a boost both physically and mentally to the Trojans.
“We would look very different,” Bell said. “She fits really well with the rest of the talent we have as a person and as a player. She’s not a captain on this team, but she’s definitely a leader.
“I think a lot of the girls kind of look to her to say, ‘If Ali can be out here and she’s giving her all, given what she’s gone through, maybe I can dig a little deeper, too.’”
Walls wants to ditch the brace, but that’s unlikely for a while. She doesn’t believe it inhibits her movement much, and after the time off from club soccer, her touch on the ball slowly returns to normal.
“My knee feels fine,” said Walls, who missed a key recruiting period due to the injury but eyes a Division I path with TCU the current frontrunner.
Still, the brace will remain a reminder of the injury through this season and into basketball next year. For now, she’s accepted that minor inconvenience, but Walls might already have a date in mind for breaking free.
“I would love to get rid of the brace. I’ll just have to set a new goal,” she said.