Carroll College’s soccer team had a feeling it would be special a little over a year ago, and a trip to the NAIA national tournament months later vindicated that. The season will be remembered as a smashing success by most measurements. Yet, one Saint couldn’t share in the spoils.
The waning days of preseason can leave any athlete anxious. Sweat, drills and low stakes leave players ready for when the minutes matter, when the final horn signifies a W or an L. Even when practices inch even the slightest bit toward being competitive, the new pace can supercharge athlete’s adrenaline. The long periods of fitness testing and conditioning, the two-a-day practices, all in preparation of the upcoming season, drove new meaning to a routine 4-on-4 for the Saints.
Midfielder Ali Zimmerman had two minutes to bring her team back from a deficit. Her desire to win swelled.
A sloppy ball back to the opposition’s keeper meant Zimmerman could strike, and perhaps reverse her team’s fortunes. “I’m gonna go get that,” the senior thought.
Jamie Carter, Carroll’s goalkeeper who went on to win the conference’s defensive player of the year award, stood in her path. Zimmerman challenged. Carter slid. The pair collided, with Carter’s legs taking the brunt of the force. Initially, others thought Carter suffered the injury.
A pop told Zimmerman something else: Her senior year was over. Her athletic future, clouded with doubt.
“I was super upset,” Zimmerman said. “There’s no coming back from this. Why would I try?"
The questions continued to pop into her mind.
“Will I even be good enough to come back?”
* * *
Soccer had been her life.
Those around Zimmerman would tell you the same. The 5-foot-7 daughter of a coach often looks forward, just as she does on the pitch. Attacking, defending and planning each move seeped into her life as much as it did when she helped lift the Saints. The CMR product knew her senior year would be difficult to come to terms with. A season full of lasts. A last home game. Last road trip. Last pregame talk. Last look back at what she and her senior class accomplished.
She entered her senior year in the best shape during her time at Carroll College. “Attitude, mentally and physically, everything was falling into place,” coach Dave Thorvilson said. The spunky underclassman had earned Thorvilson’s attention by the end of her sophomore year, proving she could be a leader. She communicated well, a critical component that distinguishes good midfielders from the great ones. She progressed each season leading into her senior year, primed for a finale.
But a fluke play led to surgery, which led to the unknown.
“I was devastated at first,” Zimmerman said. “Soccer’s been my life forever. I was already upset that it was my senior year and I was going to be done playing soccer. I was already upset that it all was coming to an end.”
The team’s trainer, Brian Coble, assessed Zimmerman after the fall, performing various tests on the knee. No conclusion was reached. Zimmerman would hobble on crutches for the night before meeting with the team’s physician, John Michelotti, the next day. His prognosis was the same. Another day would pass before a MRI revealed the full extent of the injury. ACL ripped, Zimmerman, too, was torn: Walk away from her passion or submit to nine months of grueling rehabilitation.
Thorvilson’s seen his players go down with ACL injuries before. It’s an unfortunate part of his job. The nine-year head coach can’t force a player to make the decision to continue playing soccer or retire. He knows that. He can only be a soothsayer, hoping to help his player reach the right decision for themself. That decision can leave Thorvilson in limbo. If any injured player comes back, he doesn’t need to recruit or find a replacement right away. Should the player hang up their cleats, he has to snap back into the realities of being a coach and putting together a competitive unit.
Thorvilson gave Zimmerman ample time to make a decision.
Each season, the Saints’ last home game is a senior’s event. Each senior is recognized before the game, taking the field with their parents in tow. Zimmerman had spent most of the season traveling with the team, serving as essentially the spirit of the Saints. She watched as players honored her by wearing her number during games. On that October Senior Day, she wore her number again, donning the jersey for the first time that season, walking onto the field with her parents -- an intoxicant for the injured senior, and an answer for Thorvilson.
“That was when I knew for sure,” she said.
The “Comeback Tour” began.
* * *
During months of indecision, teammates and her parents encouraged Zimmerman. Texts would give her hope and a reminder each day that her teammates had her back. Ylena Gazdik became a system of support, relaying how she had recovered from two ACL injuries. The entire team created a card with hand-written notes. “Those little comments” showed her how much teammates cared. Her team became her support group, a band that Zimmerman needed.
Zimmerman’s dad, Rob, walked a similar path to his daughter, twice tearing his ACL growing up. Medicine and recuperation processes have changed since Rob’s ACL injury, which left the father without practical rehab advice. It struck as a bit of a conundrum. When he talks, Zimmerman does so with confidence. He’s not one to second guess, which is why he didn’t want his daughter to question herself, either.
“My only direct advice to her was if she doesn’t go back, she might always have that what-if,” Rob said. “If she does go back, whether she got any playing time or not, or whatever her role was going to be, when she went back, at least she went back and went out on her terms.”
That summer, as he did with her through high school, Rob Zimmerman trained his daughter. The two took to the track, did soccer workouts and began to rebuild Zimmerman into a Saints starter.
“I told her it was going to be hard,” he said. “That hour and half she had to look at me as Coach, whether she was mad at me at the end of the day or not.”
Zimmerman would need every ounce of her father’s tutelage. She’d have Thorvilson’s fitness tests to pass in mere months.
Five different fitness tests await Carroll College soccer players every preseason. Thorvilson grants each returner a choice. To be eligible for his team, a player must pass three out of the five tests: Strength, timed mile, agility, sprints and a reactionary test.
Zimmerman passed in the preseason and once again felt she was the fittest she’d ever been.
But she still had a mental hurdle to conquer.
Once trainers cleared her for contact, Zimmerman joined Carroll summer camps to help coach youth and high school players. Each night culminates with a scrimmage combining high school and college athletes. Zimmerman wasted no time in testing herself. She made a tackle almost immediately when the scrimmage started. She said she could sense her teammates’ wincing. Zimmerman was fine.
“Then I was like. 'I’m ready to go,” she said. “Ever since then I’ve been trying to go at it head-on.”
She questioned herself a year ago.
Now she has an answer.
“I would say overall I’m a better player now,” Zimmerman said. “Mentally and physically. I worked really hard last year and knew I was going to be behind everybody anyways because I didn’t run for four months. I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. I think I play every game like it could be my last now. I cherish every moment.”
And the Saints are, too.