Quick to goal, quick on rebound

Women's lacrosse: Princeton's Cristi Samaras shows the same determination in recovering from a severe knee injury as she does in going to the goal.

April 28, 1999|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Cristi Samaras has always relied on her explosive moves to goal. Even as an All-Metro and All-America high school lacrosse player at Annapolis High, the Princeton senior left baffled defenders in her wake.

A blistering first step and deceptive change of direction helped Samaras set scoring records at Princeton and earn 1998 Ivy League Player of the Year honors.

In a split second last Halloween, however, Samaras feared that trademark burst of power had disappeared forever. Her left knee gave way in an exhibition game with the U.S. national team at Virginia.

"My leg just buckled under me," she said. "I wasn't turning. My knee just collapsed."

Samaras had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.

"When I first tore it, I felt I could never watch or play in a game again. I was upset. I thought, `Why not next year?' But after a while, I realized it's just the luck of the draw. It's actually given me a great perspective on things," said Samaras, who had missed the 1997 season when she left Princeton for a year to assess her academic goals and to train with the national team.

After surgery in November, Samaras knew what to expect. One of six lacrosse-playing siblings, she had watched her sister, Cory, and her brother, Dean, recover from two ACL tears each.

The average recovery takes six to nine months, and many athletes need a full year, said Carolyn Maull, the athletic trainer who works with the Princeton women's lacrosse team. But Samaras was determined to play in the Tigers' opener March 7 -- just four months after surgery.

"One of the biggest problems was getting Cristi to take a day off," Maull said. "She felt like, `I really have to get back faster.' "

With only two days of full-field practice behind her, Samaras played in the season opener. She played just 10 minutes in each half, but scored two goals in a 17-3 romp over UMBC.

Since then, she has become the Tigers' all-time leading scorer with 260 points, 180 of them goals.

As No. 6 Princeton (11-3) takes aim at No. 1 Maryland (15-0) tonight at 7 in College Park, Samaras leads the Tigers in goals (37) and points (44).

In addition to plenty of family and team support, Samaras said she drew inspiration from last year's "Cinderella Story: The Lady Vols Fight Back" -- an HBO film about the 1996-97 Tennessee women's national champion basketball team that documents point guard Kellie Jolly's return from an ACL tear in just three months.

Last week, Samaras played for the first time without her leg brace, which has added to her confidence. However, she has not returned to full strength. She still spends an hour or two daily before practice working with Maull on strength and conditioning.

"Since high school, I've been known as a scorer," said Samaras, who led Anne Arundel County in scoring for three years. "People are still expecting that. I still see double teams and intense defense, and I feel less prepared to handle that. I don't feel like I have my whole arsenal anymore. I feel I'm fending people off instead of attacking them."

Teammate Lucy Small, who defends Samaras in practice every day, has a different perspective.

"I think she sells herself a little bit short," Small said. "Certainly, she still has really quick moves. In a way, she's almost more powerful now. If a defender denies her strong side, she has no problem going weak side. She's a smart, crafty attacker, and that hasn't changed."

Samaras, a four-year member of the national team, holds six Tigers scoring records. She also scored at least one goal in 42 straight games through the middle of this season. As a sophomore, she became the first Tiger -- male or female -- to score 50 goals in one season.

Although her numbers have dropped from a Division I-leading 85 points last year, she remains the most valuable asset to the Tigers' offense and one of the nation's top attack players.

"At times, she looks every bit as explosive as before the injury," said Princeton coach Chris Sailer. "What she's lost is a little of her agility. You see that on the defensive end. And [she's lost] speed, having not been able to run for four months."

"When you can't play for four months, it takes time to get your touch back and your timing back. We told her she couldn't expect to be 100 percent, but she's done a great job for us coming back."

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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