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Seasons of Recovery Part 3: After six months of rehab and a clearance scare, Granby’s Kate Sarnacki returns to the lacrosse field

  • Kate Sarnacki, center, examines the results of her strength testing at the The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention in Waltham with her mother Kim Sarnacki, left, and injury prevention specialist Sara Collins, right. Collins informed Kate that most of her testing looked good, but one measurement was below the level they like to see. GAZETTE STAFF / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Kate Sarnacki, front left, walks out of the stadium with her coach, Sallie Gilliland, on April 7, after a game at Chicopee Comp, her first game since her ACL surgery in September. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kate Sarnacki, left, hugs her mother, Kim Sarnacki, after her game against Chicopee Comp on April 7, her first game since her ACL surgery in September. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kate Sarnacki, left, hugs her mother, Kim Sarnacki, after her game against Chicopee Comp on April 7, her first game since her ACL surgery in September.

  • Kate Sarnacki works out with a squat rack at Planet Fitness in Belchertown. She needed the muscles in her left leg to be at least 90 percent as strong as the ones in her right to be cleared to return to sports. GAZETTE STAFF / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Kate Sarnacki of Granby puts an ACL brace on her knee prior to her team's game at Chicopee Comp on April 7, her first game since her surgery in September. Part 3 of the Gazette’s series on Sarnacki’s rebound from injury begins on Page B3. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kate Sarnacki, front right, is greeted by her teammates before their game at Chicopee Comp on April 7, her first game since her surgery in September.

  • Kate Sarnacki, second from left, high fives her head coach, Sallie Gilliland before their game at Chicopee Comp on April 7. Gazette StafF/Jerrey Roberts

  • Kate Sarnacki, left, of Granby, moves the ball against Ariella Manno, of Chicopee Comp, April 7, in Chicopee, during Sarnacki's first game since her ACL surgery in September.

  • Kate Sarnacki, of Granby, scores on a free position shot against Chicopee Comp on April 7, her first goal in her first game since her ACL surgery in September. Gazette StafF/Jerrey Roberts

  • Kate Sarnacki, center, of Granby, raises her stick with other team members at the close of halftime April 7 at Chicopee Comp, her first game since her ACL surgery in September. Gazette StafF/Jerrey Roberts

  • Kate Sarnacki, second from left, of Granby, scores on Chicopee Comp goalie Emilie Laizer, right, April 7 in Chicopee, her first game since her ACL surgery in September. She scored five goals.



@kylegrbwsk
Monday, May 15, 2017

Editor’s note: Granby High School senior Kate Sarnacki injured her left knee at the beginning of soccer season. The injury sidelined Sarnacki for two athletic seasons. The Gazette followed her road to recovery. This is part three in a three-part series.

GRANBY — Kate Sarnacki, bent over in Granby High School’s parking lot with her mouthguard dangling, adjusted the straps on her knee brace. Nearly six months after reconstructive surgery on her left knee, doctors had cleared her for most athletic movements except planting, cutting and twisting on her left leg. Those posed the greatest risk to reinjure her knee.

Kate’s lacrosse stick waited on the asphalt. She snatched it up with her right hand and pulled the problematic strap off the brace with her left. It wasn’t fitting right, and she decided the two surrounding her knee would do.

In two days, Kate had an appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital Orthopedic Center in Waltham. There she’d learn the verdict: was her left knee healthy enough to return to the field?

She’d been cheering her teammates on from the sidelines at soccer and basketball practices all year. But as lacrosse season began, she was finally able to return to practice, running with her friends, passing the ball and ripping shots at the cage.

“She’s got this determination to not let anything stop her,” Granby girls lacrosse coach Sallie Gilliland said.

Kate led Granby through conditioning to open practice and served as first-year coach Gilliland’s demonstrator for other drills. She directed her teammates in offensive walk-throughs.

When she couldn’t participate in an intense passing drill that might compromise her knee, Kate played catch with Granby’s goalies. She shot at them from different angles in front of the net, pushing off her right leg and keeping her left leg straight and off the ground to minimize torque.

“She takes the time to develop the program, which is important because she’s a senior, and she doesn’t have to do that,” Gilliland said. “She wants to make our program better.”

Only the doctor’s clearance and returning to game shape stood between Kate and playing again. She couldn’t do anything except wait for her appointment.

The moment of truth

Accompanied by her mom, Kim Sarnacki, Kate walked into the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention in a black Granby basketball sweatshirt and gray lacrosse sweats. She no longer needed a brace to walk, but she made sure to walk like the therapist taught her: heel, toe, heel, toe.

They checked in and waited for her strength testing appointment. The receptionist called “Katherine?”

Kate followed injury prevention specialist Sara Collins through a pair of green glass doors into a turf-floored workout room. Collins measured the muscles in her leg and tested both their strength and flexibility. Her more-recently repaired left knee performed better than her right knee. Kate smiled.

It quickly faded.

The strength ratio between her glutes and hamstrings measured worse than what the specialists like to see. Kate dealt with hamstring issues that week and skipped taking draws at a lacrosse scrimmage the day before to rest. Color drained from her face.

“So I’m not gonna get cleared?” she asked, anxious.

Collins said it was up to Dr. Mininder Kocher, the hospital’s associate director of sports medicine and a Harvard professor who performed Kate’s surgery. She fretted walking through the hospital lobby and on the elevator ride up to the office floor. They checked in again and were escorted to the small, beige examination room.

Kate sat on the examination table and waited. Her eyes darted around. They quivered slightly, as she suppressed “what ifs.”

“Would he partially clear me?” she asked no one in particular. “If I don’t get cleared I’m going to be mad. I did more than I did last time.”

Her mother tried to reassure her from a plastic chair across the room but reminded her daughter of the stakes beyond the short term.

“It’s your future health,” Kim said.

Silence fell between them. Kate flexed and relaxed her left knee, performing her own strength assessment. She hadn’t let her frustration show publicly during the previous six months. Her teammates looked up to her.

Kim spotted the frustrations starting to bubble.

“You’re on edge,” Kim said.

“I am?” Kate asked.

“I know how hard you’ve worked.”

“It’s fine,” Kate said. “I didn’t get not-cleared yet.”

Kocher entered the exam room said “hello Katherine” and shook their hands.

“We looked at your testing today, which looks good,” he said before examining Kate’s knee for pain in different positions.

He was pleased with her range of motion, extension and flexion. The ACL, he said, felt solid and stable.

Kate locked her eyes on Kocher’s hands as he detailed the condition of her knee. She sat on her hands and leaned forward in anticipation.

He explained that her knee looked good clinically and at six months they typically let patients return to sports.

“I think,” he said, “that’s OK for you.”

Her eyes flashed toward her mom, and she cracked a wry smile before pumping her right fist and exclaiming, “Yeah!” She exhaled, leaned back and smiled broadly.

Kate had already been fitted for the ACL brace she’d need when she started playing again. Kocher approved her to return to practice and drills for a week before she could play in games. The clearance also came with a mandate: listen to your knee and back off if it starts to act up.

Kate attacked her first lacrosse practice with the same vigor as her rehab.

“She was so quick everywhere, and she was doing everything she could to her full ability,” Granby sophomore Madison Sexton, who also played soccer and basketball with Kate, said later. “That practice was a lot of fun. It’s great to have her back. I’ve missed her.”

Her doctor’s note allowed her to return to game action April 5. Granby’s season opener was scheduled for April 6 at Chicopee Comp. It dumped rain that day, pushing the game to April 7.

“I was mad I had to wait,” she said. “But I’d rather come back on a nice day.”

She’d waited six months. One more day couldn’t hurt.

Back on the field

When gameday finally arrived, Kate sat in the single seat on the left at the back of Granby’s team bus on the way to Chicopee. Her boombox blared. Usually she opts for headphones pregame and saves the boombox for the way back home.

This was a special occasion.

The bus arrived at Chicopee Comp, and Kate put on her headphones and walked to the field. She put on her cleats, protective eyewear and knee brace before joining her teammates in light passing drills.

“I don’t really feel pressure, but it’s like I have to do my job now because I’m playing,” she said.

Stick check, player introductions and the national anthem followed warmups. Instead of heading to the bench, Kate stepped from the white sideline turf onto the green playing surface. She walked into the faceoff circle.

Heel, toe. Heel, toe.

Only a whistle stood between her and the moment she’d spent long months waiting and training for.

The whistle sounded.

Postscript

Since returning, Kate has scored like she’s making up for lost time, accumulating 75 goals with 37 assists in 15 games. She debuted with five goals against Chicopee Comp playing in the midfield.

“They were guarding me hard, but I came back and had no issues,” Kate said. “I had no wear and tear on my body at that point.”

Little aches and pains started once she began to push her body. Tendonitis showed up in her left foot.

“My knee isn’t 100 percent. I can feel as I’m running other parts of my body, not failing, but not 100 percent,” Kate said. “I can’t do all I could have before my injury.”

She moved from midfield to attack for five games, continuing to pile on up the goals, scoring at least three in every game until the Rams played Lee on April 27. Kate only found the net once against the Wildcats when she beat three defenders to the cage for a shot in the bottom-right corner. She dealt with multiple defenders face-guarding her for the entire game, determined not to let her beat them on her own.

“They don’t just let me play. They make me work to get separation to even get the ball. It’s kind of annoying. That’s the strategy. We would do that to someone else’s player, too,” Kate said. “I’m trying to lead with my voice. I don’t have the power right now to separate every single time and get the ball and start an offense, that’s why I need other people to step up. They definitely did that (against Lee).”

Six players scored in the 11-9 victory, including sophomore Kaelyn Croteau. After Croteau’s third goal, which forced a Lee timeout, Kate walked with her off the field.

“Just keep standing right there,” she told the sophomore. “That spot’s perfect.”

She’s continued her mentoring role from soccer and basketball, but on the field. Kate directs her teammates through the offensive zone and helps coordinate the defense.

“It's so great to have her out there playing with our team, it wouldn't feel the same without her,” Sexton said. “I love having her as my teammate and being able to play with her, I'm so glad she's back and healthy.”

After her team beat Lee, Kate boarded the bus and walked to her seat at the back. She perched on the seat on the left with one arm draped over the top. There are five games left in her senior season, give or take a postseason run. A lacrosse career at Springfield College awaits after.

The bus pulled out of the parking lot full of excited, victorious chatter. Kate settled in for the long ride back to Granby with her boombox and pressed play.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.