CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before every match, University of Virginia soccer star Makenzy Doniak wraps her lower left arm with white athletic tape and, in black ink, prints “KD.”
The marking pays tribute to her big sister and role model, Kylie, a former University of Texas standout who almost lost her life 3
“Every day I am inspired to live,” Makenzy said, “because she came close to not making it.”
The youngest of three soccer-playing sisters, Makenzy will begin her senior season for the 2014 NCAA finalists Sunday afternoon against UNC Wilmington at Klockner Stadium.
With 50 career goals, the striker sits nine short of the team record set by Angela Hucles 16 years ago. Each of the previous two seasons, Doniak scored 20 times, tying the Virginia mark. She also scored once at the Under-20 World Cup last fall, and while a pro career beckons, she’s on pace for under-23 and senior national team consideration.
Along the way, despite a continent between them, Kylie is never far from her thoughts.
“She is one of my biggest fans,” Makenzy said. “She loves watching me, and I love playing knowing she is watching.”
Kylie, 24, lives with her parents in Chino Hills, Calif., 35 miles east of Los Angeles. She has made a remarkable recovery from the physical wounds — fractured leg, clavicle and ribs, punctured lung, knee damage and countless cuts and bruises. A traumatic brain injury will remain with her, damage that caused memory loss, mood swings and other complications.
Two classes short of graduating when the accident occurred, she completed her degree through community college and online courses. With her beaming family in attendance, she walked across the graduation stage last year.
She drives, jogs and works full-time as a special education aide at Ayala High School, her alma mater.
And when Virginia’s season commences, Kylie will watch live streams online and follow the non-televised matches on the internet.
During Makenzy’s first two seasons, Kylie traveled with her family to Charlottesville often to attend games in person — a journey with both therapeutic and emotional rewards.
“I was lost with a lot of things in the world,” she said. “To see that soccer field and see Makenzy, it felt right. It made me still feel like I was part of the game. I’d see her running, that little blonde hair bouncing around, and I thought it was me.”
Makenzy, 21, followed in the footsteps of both Kylie and eldest sister Alyssa, 27, who played club soccer at UC Santa Barbara before joining the NCAA program at Saint Mary’s (Calif.). After the accident, Alyssa left her job to help care for Kylie.
“They have always been very close and always supported each other. When you talk about one, you talk about all three,” said their mother, Lori, a former tennis player at Long Beach State. Their father, Dave, was a defensive lineman at the same university in 1979-80.
“We were dragging Makenzy to soccer fields for years with the other girls,” Lori continued, “and she couldn’t wait to get her chance to play.”
As her high school and club soccer profile rose and a college decision approached, Makenzy did not consider a school on the West Coast. In 2010, after Texas played Virginia, Kylie, a midfielder, spoke highly of the Cavaliers’ attack-minded style and urged her sister, a natural attacker, to look into it.
“We weren’t high on the list at first,” Virginia Coach Steve Swanson said with a laugh. Nonetheless, Makenzy committed during winter break of her junior year in high school. Before arriving at Virginia, she was a member of the under-20 national team, coached by Swanson.
Everything was falling into place. Alyssa had begun a career as a teacher, Kylie was nearing graduation, and Makenzy was preparing to move east.
In February 2012, the family received a late-night call. Kylie, the Longhorns’ leading scorer during her senior season in the fall, had been out with her roommate and roommate’s boyfriend when a car raced through a red light and struck them at a speed estimated at more than 40 mph.
Beyond the battered bones and twisted tendons, Kylie was in a coma. Her friends were not as seriously injured and recovered. The driver was caught and, in August 2013, found guilty of numerous charges. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
“We were told in the early stages, ‘We don’t know how she is going to recover. No one does when it involves a brain injury,’ ” Makenzy said. “Hearing those words, you don’t know what to expect. We’ve been blessed the way she has recovered.”
After weeks in intensive care in Austin, Kylie was transferred to a hospital in Southern California. Her family was constantly by her side during recovery and rehabilitation. Makenzy would visit after school.
West Coast soccer programs reached out in case Makenzy needed to stay close to home, even if for just one season.
“I tried to make sure she never felt like she had to stay,” Lori said. “For her to go was the best thing. I couldn’t let the accident affect another one of our girls’ lives.”
Said Swanson: “It never came to her staying in California, but if it had, we would have understood, no questions asked.”
The only change involved Doniak arriving in August instead of months earlier for summer school. The first road game was at Texas. Kylie was there, her first return to Mike A. Myers Stadium since the accident. Makenzy scored in the second half.
She completed her freshman season by starting 17 of 24 games and posting 10 goals and eight assists. Over the subsequent two autumns, with two-time Hermann Trophy winner Morgan Brian conducting Virginia’s attack, Doniak totaled 40 goals and 17 assists.
The Cavaliers advanced to the College Cup semifinals in 2013 and the final last year. (All three defeats in 2014 came to champion Florida State.)
En route to the championship game for the first time, the Cavaliers won at UCLA in the quarterfinals. Kylie and Alyssa were among many Makenzy supporters in attendance.
Doniak’s 51 points last year (20 goals, 11 assists) set a Virginia record, and her goal total was tied for third in the country.
Virginia returns nine starters, but the departures of Brian — the first overall pick by the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League draft and youngest member of the U.S. World Cup squad this summer — and Danielle Colaprico (19 assists) threaten to disrupt the supply line to Doniak.
“My role has probably changed,” she said. “I need to get the ball more and take on Morgan’s role a little more, create like she did. I feel more responsibility.”
Swanson has already noticed adaptation. In an exhibition against Maryland, Doniak made an off-the-ball run not to receive a pass but to open space for teammates. He also sees Doniak making technical upgrades, a trait necessary to thrive beyond college.
“Like so many players who are good athletes, you can rely on athleticism,” Swanson said. “If you want to play at the highest level, you can’t be just that. She is really trying to hone her skills now to complement what her athleticism gave her at younger ages.”
After three consecutive home games to start the season, the Cavaliers will head west to play UCLA and Pepperdine. Between games, the Doniaks will host a team dinner in Chino Hills.
In late October, when the Cavaliers clash with Florida State in Charlottesville, the Doniaks will arrive for senior night, Makenzy’s last regular season home appearance. Kylie will take time off from work.
“All of the players call each other sisters on our team because there is a certain bond they have,” Swanson said. “But with Mak and [her sisters], it’s something unique and special. It’s the way it should be.”