Duke's Kaiser gets back on track

Senior returns to lineup after having knee surgery

College Lacrosse

March 06, 2003|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

Kate Kaiser remembers the moment vividly. Rolling around the crease. Reaching to catch a wide pass. Planting her right foot. Feeling her knee hyperextend.

"I thought it was like when you roll your ankle and you need to walk it off," said the Duke All-America midfielder, who moved on to the next drill that first day of women's lacrosse preseason in January 2002.

"We started working on positioning and when I shuffled laterally, my knee buckled. I thought, `That can't be good.' "

The Blue Devils' trainer asked whether her leg felt like a "wobbly kitchen table leg." When Kaiser said yes, the trainer broke the bad news: She had probably torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. A magnetic resonance imaging the next day revealed the tear.

Instead of trying to lead Duke to its first national championship in her senior year, Kaiser faced surgery and months of rehabilitation. Her dream would have to wait a year after taking a medical redshirt.

"It was earth-shattering," said Kaiser, a former All-Metro midfielder at Notre Dame Prep. "You never expect anything like that to happen to you. I had never been injured before, and it was my senior year. All of the seniors felt like everything was ready for us to go for the big one. Then you get hit with that."

Once the initial shock wore off, Kaiser, who had already been chosen Lacrosse Magazine's Preseason Player of the Year for 2002, realized that her dream, although delayed, could still be within her grasp. Known for her tenacity and competitive fire on the field, she threw that same relentless effort into rehabilitation.

"It was excruciating for her [to be sidelined]," said Duke coach Kerstin Kimmel, "but once she was able to get herself focused on rehab, she put all that disappointment energy into getting better. She took what could have been a lot of negative energy and turned it into positive energy for herself."

Seven months after surgery, Kaiser joined the team for fall ball. She needed time to get back into game shape, but now, as the Blue Devils (3-0) prepare for today's 2 p.m. Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Maryland's Artificial Turf Facility, Kaiser is in prime condition.

"The first day of preseason this year - boom, she's back," Kimmel said. "She may be a quarter step slower, but she plays with the same fire and tenacity, and I think she's smarter. Before, she could muscle her way through things and use her physical attributes, but now, her understanding is at a better level."

Opponents certainly haven't forgotten the two-time All American, who, with 122 career goals, is just three away from second place on Duke's all-time list.

"I remember her being a knockout player all over the field," Maryland senior Sonia Judd said. "She had that real presence on the field. As a midfielder, she's offensively and defensively involved. That's what all the great players do."

Although Kaiser is perhaps best known as a scorer, contributing six goals and an assist through the Blue Devils' first three games, Kimmel said that's not the best part of her game. In an 18-4 win over UMBC, she had only one goal but caused seven turnovers.

"That's what makes Kate, Kate," Kimmel said. "We missed that presence of having a player who can make great defensive plays, wreak havoc in the midfield and ram the ball down their throats, but now we don't have to isolate Kate all the time, because we have so many other players who can score."

For a while, the Cockeysville native wondered whether she could ever return to form. Remembering how the injury happened, that it took only one quick pivot, made her a little tentative on the field.

"When I was cleared to play, I was a little nervous and scared," Kaiser, 22, said. "My physical therapist told me: `Sports are a risk. Every time you play, you take that risk. You have to decide whether the risk outweighs the benefits, and you've made that decision by having surgery and going through all this.' After that, I didn't worry about it anymore."

Kaiser wasted no time announcing her return to the form that earned her a spot on the national elite squad, as well as a position on the 50th anniversary ACC women's lacrosse team. She scored the first Duke goal of the season just 55 seconds into its first game - a 16-2 romp over Virginia Tech.

"I expect her to be the same old Kate," said North Carolina coach Jenny Slingluff-Levy. "They really missed her last year, because she sets the tempo for their team, and they'll be looking for her to do that this year. I know she's really motivated to get Duke back to the final four."

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