The St. Mary’s girls soccer team got a first-hand look at how easily the injury can happen, when star midfielder Mia Nikolakopoulos underwent surgery last August to repair a torn ACL, forcing her to miss her junior season with the Spartans.
The loss was a tough one for coach Jim Foley and his team to overcome. Nikolakopoulos, even as a sophomore, was the “field general” for the Spartans. She was chosen as a captain entering her junior year, a role she will again hold this season.
“It hurt not having her out there,” Foley said. “She was the one who ran the middle of the field, and not having her out there was a huge loss.”
The team still reached the Division 4 North final in the postseason, but Foley says “it would have been different if we’d had her out there.”
When thinking of ACL tears, images of a player writhing in pain or limping off the field come to mind. That wasn’t how it happened for Nikolakopoulos. There was no one moment of excruciating pain or impact that alerted her that something was wrong. It was a gradual tear in her right knee that finally gave way last summer, when she was on vacation in Greece.
“I didn’t really know what to do about it,” Nikolakopoulos said. “I was there for two more weeks.”
Upon returning to the states, Nikolakopoulos actually played in a summer league game.
“I was okay,” she said. “I could run and sprint and dribble the ball. But the little turns, that’s when I would fall.
“It hurt a little here and there,” Nikolakopoulos added. “I’ve had tendonitis in this knee for years, so I thought maybe it was acting up. But there was no one moment like ‘oh, I just tore my ACL.’”
A subsequent MRI would confirm the damage, and surgery was the best option for repairing the tear. Nikolakopoulos had the surgery last August 12.
Then there was the tough part: the recovery. The first post-surgery days were no picnic for Nikolakopoulos.
“The nerve blocker didn’t work, so I felt it all in my hamstring, and after that the pain wasn’t that bad,” she said. “But it affected my eating, I wasn’t eating or getting up as much as I should, I was just on the couch for weeks. The pain wasn’t as big of a problem as my stomach and all that comes with that.”
Next came physical therapy. It took three months of building up strength for Nikolakopoulos to even attempt running.
“And even then it was awkward,” she said. “Never painful, but awkward, like I forgot how to run. It took a long time to get back into everything.”
Throughout this recovery, Nikolakopoulos supported her team from the sidelines. But as it would be for any competitor, it wasn’t easy for the junior to sit back and watch.
“It was one of the hardest things I think I’ve had to go through,” she recalled. “I pictured myself on the field like ‘I could have done that,’ or ‘I could have had that goal or made that pass.’ Like I could have changed the game.”
But the time down allowed Nikolakopoulos to take in the game from a different perspective.
“It was hard, but I got to see the game from a different perspective, and it definitely helped, especially going into this season,” she said. “I saw what could be better from the coach’s point of view.”
“We say sometimes watching the game from the sidelines, it gives you a totally different perspective on the way things should be,” Foley said. “She knows the game when she’s out there, but last year she was able to read the game, see mistakes, see things she and everyone else needs to work on, and I think that helps her mentality as captain. It was almost like having another coach.”
Nikolakopoulos feels that in a way, she’s become a better player “...in a way.”
“I don’t want to say I’ve gotten worse, but there are things I need to focus more on now, because I lost so much,” she said. “But now I can see when a coach is telling me to do something, I really need to do it because being on the sidelines, I could see how frustrating it was to tell players something and they’re not doing it.”
With the 2017 season beginning Wednesday, Nikolakopoulos feels she’s just about at 100 percent.
“There’s still part of the mental game that has to come back a little bit,” she said. “Confidence is really the biggest thing.”
Nikolakopoulos needs to wear a brace on the knee during games, as an added protection for contact. But otherwise, she has the all-clear to go full speed. And she certainly does.
“She goes full blast,” Foley said. “I think there’s some frustration because she wants to be the way she was sophomore year, but it’s going to take some time, she was off for a while. But she knows what she’s capable of and you can’t limit her because that’s just the way she plays.”
Now, the focus is on making her senior season the best it can be. Nikolakopoulos, along with fellow senior captain Caitlyn Foley, are leading a young Spartans team with a lot of potential.
“I think the biggest thing for me is for us to grow as a team, and I would love to win a state championship,” Nikolakopoulos said. “Not just for me, that would make my entire high school career, but Foley, he’s been here forever, he’s been working so hard. His daughter (and Spartans teammate) Jenna is like my best friend. That would be the coolest thing. There are a couple things we need to work on and we’ll be right there.”
St. Mary’s takes on English at Manning Wednesday night at 7 in the annual Lynn City Soccer Tournament.