NORTHRIDGE, Calif. ---
It is not unfair to say that of all the Northridge women's soccer players, none was more excited for the start of the 2012 season than Nicolette Smith. A redshirt sophomore from nearby Valencia, Calif., Smith has missed nearly all of the last two years due to knee injuries.
Before arriving at CSUN, Smith was a talented prep player at Valencia High School where she played four seasons and served as a team captain. One of her school's biggest rivals was Saugus High School, located just a few miles away in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Her opponent then and teammate now, Brittanie Sakajian, is also working her way back from a knee injury that robbed her of last season. A talented rookie who scored four goals and had 10 points, Sakajian suffered a season-ending injury in preseason training before the start of the 2011 campaign.
Sadly, Sakajian was somewhat prepared for the realities of the injury. In high school, she went through three knee surgeries, including two to repair a torn ACL. Even with the history, she says that by the time game day arrives, the pain is the last thing on her mind.
"I may think about my knee a little more during warm-ups, but once I get out on the field I don't think about pain," Sakajian said. "I just put it in the back of my head. In the game, I don't tend to think about it. It's not always on my mind."
Sakajian made her official return to the Matador line-up in a 1-1 draw with Fresno State on Aug. 26. She seemed to pick up right where she left off, assisting on the Matadors' goal in the game.
"Sitting out a year can mess with you, but you can really build off it and become a better person," Sakajian said. "The time away teaches you to be patient and not rush your rehab or rush certain situations you cannot control. I had to be calm about it. Taking a year off was the best thing I could have done. If I had come back too soon, maybe I wouldn't be where I am right now."
Smith, who estimates she's spent 15 of her 19 years on this planet playing soccer, shared a similar experience about being away from the game for so long.
"Initially, it's pretty tough to face the fact that you're going to have sit out for an extended period of time," Smith added. "As you go through the rehab though, it gives you a better appreciation for the game. The time away makes you miss the game, but it also makes you grateful for the opportunity that you have once it's all over."
The team's athletic trainer, Dunford Rodill, spoke highly of their effort during a strenuous and lengthy rehab. It is a lot of running and cutting, a chorus of drills aimed at replicating the action of the soccer field.
"My job was made a whole lot easier because both Nicolette and Brittanie were very self-motivated from the start and determined to work hard in their rehab," Rodill said. "They both did a lot of work to be where they are at today and I am excited to see them playing the game they love again."
The rash of ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) injuries in women's college soccer is a frightening trend. According to multiple published reports, approximately 70 percent of all women's soccer game and practice injuries affect lower extremities. In fact, the rate of injury is three times higher in games than in practice for women.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about the ACL injury is that it is torn; actually it bursts and donor tissue has to be used to repair and replace the destroyed ligament.
For both Sakajian and Smith, the tremendous level of support they received from their teammates helped fuel their rehab assignments.
"For the girls going through it now, it breaks my heart because I know how tough it is," Smith said. "The most important for me is to remember how great it felt to have the support of my teammates and make sure I am there for those players who need the help."
A striker himself, CSUN head coach Keith West is happy to have both at his disposal against a challenging schedule. Having suffered a torn ACL in his playing days, he also knows of the obstacles both young women have overcome.
"I think for Nicollette's situation has made her appreciate the game a little more. On the field she is a hark worker and a solid finisher. While some may have become despondent due to the predicament, Nicollette's character has been outstanding and her addition to the squad is a big plus in many ways."
"We missed Brittanie last season. She has a nose for the goal and is great in her finishing and distribution. We are excited to welcome back a player of her caliber. It is a big boost for the team."
For Nicolette, the long journey paid off with an appearance off the bench in the Matadors' 1-0 season-opening victory over Arizona State. Although she played just a few minutes, Smith said she was flooded with a host of emotions when West called her name to warm up.
"It was definitely a rush and it was exciting to play with all my teammates," Smith said. "I've been working so hard over these past two years and it felt great to get back out there and play with them on the field."