Girls' Soccer Team Spends Season in a World of Hurt

Julie McCabe
Whitman's Julie McCabe tore her ACL in September to end her soccer season and now is going through physical therapy. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

There were signs, all right. Plenty of them. Like on the first day of practice, before anyone had even changed into soccer cleats, when Rachel Davidson finished her timed two-mile sprint and collapsed on the track with a hip pointer. Or during the team's preseason sleepover, when Kathryn Barth bruised herself by walking smack into the closed glass door of a restaurant. Or midway through a light workout in August, when Retha Koefoed bent over to pick up a ball and aggravated a stress fracture in her back.

The Whitman Curse, players called it. It was more of a joke than anything. Long before three concussions, a fainting spell, four sprained ankles and two torn anterior cruciate ligaments derailed its season, the girls' soccer team at Whitman High School had so many reasons to be optimistic.

A few days before the team's first game of the season, Coach Greg Herbert stood in front of his 22 varsity players and read them a list of 12 team goals for 2007. Herbert wanted Whitman to go undefeated in home games. To allow opponents less than one goal on average. To sweep Bethesda area rivals. To win a state championship.

"Look around at the girls you're playing with," Herbert told his team. "We have a ton of talent here. We can accomplish every one of these goals. It starts now, working every day in practice, making the right decisions. Everything's in our control."

The last two months at Whitman have challenged that hypothesis. Recent studies have shown that more girls are injured playing soccer than any other sport, and the game becomes particularly risky at the high school level. Soccer results in the highest frequency of concussions among female athletes, doctors believe, and girls are at least twice as likely to suffer serious knee and ankle injuries than boys are.

Local varsity coaches blame the problem on too much soccer. Girls who play for year-round club teams enter the high school season tired, coaches said, and their nagging injuries quickly turn serious without sufficient rest. What results is an injury rash that has affected even the most successful area teams this season. Three players at River Hill tend to ankle injuries; two starters at Bethesda-Chevy Chase will miss the postseason because of ligament damage.

No school, though, has suffered quite like Whitman. When the Vikings (8-6) open the playoffs Friday at Sherwood, Herbert will direct a team that is changed drastically since he outlined its goals in August. More than half of Whitman's players missed at least one regular season game because of sickness or injury. Five starters sat out at least half the team's games. On the verge of the postseason, Herbert sometimes speaks like a man resigned to cosmic fate.

"We can still do damage," he said. "But who knows when lightning will strike next?"

A Wish: One Healthy Season

Since she arrived at Whitman, Meaghan Doherty has kept a habit of popping a few pain relief pills before the start of each practice. The medicine eases her soreness, she said, and two pills numb the pain in her knees and ankles just long enough to coax her body through a few hours on the field. Then, if Doherty's soreness returns at home, she takes a few pain relievers again before bed.

A junior midfielder with a powerful foot, Doherty has the potential to become one of Whitman's most prolific scorers. She started playing soccer at age 3 and progressed to a regional travel team just after she turned 8. Doherty's elite-level club team, the Bethesda Sharks, practices for 10 months each year and plays indoor soccer during the winter. A few weeks before Doherty started her junior season at Whitman, she traveled with the Sharks to a 10-day tournament in Brazil.

Before Whitman met for its first practice, Herbert wrote Doherty a letter, extolling her natural talent and imploring her to become a team leader in 2007. Doherty read the note, time and time again, and vowed in preseason to fulfill Herbert's expectations. But one nagging thought muted Doherty's confidence: First, I need to stay healthy for a whole season. Just once.

Doherty had cracked a growth plate in her right knee early in her freshman year and missed several games. When she returned to the field, Doherty overcompensated by relying too heavily on her left leg. A few months later, she suffered severe cartilage and bone damage to her left knee -- an injury that required the insertion of two screws, two surgeries and consultations with a specialist in Boston. After six months of rehabilitation and recovery, Doherty returned to play her sophomore season. She tore a ligament in her left ankle and missed the playoffs.

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