Kailie Sweeney thought her soccer career was over.
The Oregon standout suffered a concussion in late September of her junior year while playing a club match. The recovery process took her away from school for the rest of the semester and put her playing days in doubt.
“Two girls came in on a 50/50 ball, and they were a lot bigger than me. I’m pretty small,” Sweeney said. “We collided and nobody noticed what happened, but I was down and unconscious on the ground for a moment. I don’t remember what happened in that game.”
After spending the night in an emergency room and undergoing a computer-aided tomography scan, Sweeney saw three doctors who advised she give up the sport. Eventually, a concussion specialist said she could play again — which presented a conundrum.
“My mom and dad after were, ‘You’re done playing soccer,’ and I was completely heartbroken,” she said.
Fast forward more than a year later, and Sweeney is still on the pitch, preparing for the final weekend of her prep career with a signature group of seniors and a departing coach who combined to set a bar of success for future Panthers teams to surpass.
Sweeney’s senior class has been part of four consecutive trips to the WIAA state soccer tournament, a journey that included the 2015 state championship and a runner-up finish in 2016. The class has compiled a record of 65-7-11 heading into today’s 1:30 p.m. Division 2 semifinal game against second-seeded New Berlin Eisenhower (18-2-1) at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee.
Third-seeded Oregon (11-3-6) also is saying goodbye to the architect of the program’s success, coach Julie Grutzner, who is retiring after guiding the Panthers to a 167-62-33 record over the past 13 seasons. The state appearances are the only four in the school’s history.
It has been a season of “so longs” that nobody seems ready to see come to an end.
“Whatever happens Thursday, it’s a great opportunity to be around these girls a few more days,” Grutzner said. “We’re definitely the underdogs because we’re so young, but we’re happy to have a shot.
“We’ve really started to play well the last month, and their hard work is allowing me to go out on a state stage win or lose, as one of the final four teams. I can’t ask for a better way to end my high school career than to have a chance at the state title.”
Sweeney, a forward and center midfielder, has been saying mostly the same thing after her setbacks from last year. Her recovery earned her a Perseverance Award from the Oregon athletic department this year.
Since returning to the field, the 5-foot-2 dynamo has changed her approach to the game to guard against enduring the physical contact that belies her body size. She got stronger during the offseason to more easily handle the rigors of the season and tries to stay on the ground more.
“That night was a mess, but I totally grew from it,” Sweeney said.
“I play smarter, and found out I love the game even more than I did before, which I didn’t know was possible.”
That love of the game and her experience — she’s a three-year varsity player — have come in handy as the Panthers navigated through a season of transition, with nine sophomores and two freshmen on the varsity roster.
The four captains — Sweeney and fellow seniors Emma Krause and Sammy Eyers (the only two of seven seniors to play varsity all four years) and junior defender Sydney McKee — have been relied upon by younger players as much for their experience as their talent.
“This year, a lot of players turned to us captains to pump them up, which I haven’t seen in my previous years,” Sweeney said. “We’ve had a lot of team bonding this year, and that has made my role as captain more important to me and my teammates.”
Sweeney said her team experienced tough times this season trying to match the expectations of those in the community, and classmates who have grown used to the Panthers making the trip to Milwaukee every June. And she remembers that four years ago, the incoming players from the class of 2018 never could have expected this level of success.
“We all came in blindsided about what we were getting into,” she said. “We all love the sport and grew up playing it together. I didn’t think any of us saw this coming, but I’m so glad it happened.”