Alexis Donnelly went from being the leading scorer on her college soccer team to literally a coach on the sideline in a blink of an eye.
Donnelly, a junior forward at Siena Heights (Mich.) College and a Clay graduate, was one of a few players scrambling for a ball against Madonna College on Sept. 28 when the ball popped up in the air.
“I went to go get it, and me and a girl kind of collided,” said Donnelly, 20. “She hit me on the outside of my leg and my right knee buckled inward and I twisted and heard it pop. The refs stopped the game immediately. It was just a big ‘pop!’ ”
Donnelly said she crumpled to the ground, screaming.
“The physician at Madonna said I had a patella sprain and I would be back in a week or two,” Donnelly said. “I went home (to Toledo) and got X-rayed and they came back negative. I had to see my orthopedic surgeon at Wildwood, and as soon as he started doing some tests he knew it was my ACL. It’s an ACL and meniscus. He’s not sure if my MCL’s torn or not.”
The trip to Wildwood was Donnelly’s official notice: her junior season with the Saints was over. She was leading the team in scoring, with seven goals and five assists in just 10 games, and was having the best season of her soccer career.
“My season’s over, and it’s been really rough,” Donnelly said. “I felt like finally I was in a good spot and I wasn’t having any more health issues, just minor bumps and bruises. I was physically fit and where I wanted to be. I started getting on a roll and it all felt like it was taken away from me in an instant.”
Injuries and illness are nothing new to Donnelly. She tore her ACL halfway through her senior season (2010-11) at Clay and still made first-team All-City League and all-district. She also has to deal with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the nerves.
People with Guillain-Barre syndrome feel weakness and tingling in their extremities at first, followed by sensations that can quickly spread and eventually paralyze the entire body.
“I’ve had no symptoms,” Donnelly said. “I still get tingly sometimes, like when I get sick. My legs still fall asleep fairly easy, just like before. I put it behind me. I feel like if it’s going to come back, so be it. I’ll beat it again. It’s not even a worry to me anymore.”
Donnelly hasn’t been the only player hurting on the Saints’ roster. Two other players are out of action, one with a broken bone in her shin and the other one with pulled ligaments in her ankle.
Donnelly, a psychology major, said she has been on the sidelines helping 11th-year coach Scott Oliver during games.
“I’m definitely in coach mode right now,” she said, “It’s kind of instilled in me. That’s what I want to do when I’m done playing. I want to be the graduate assistant coach here when I graduate. I definitely want to keep my foot in the coaching door.”
The Saints have gone 3-1 without Donnelly in the lineup, improving to 7-6-1 and 3-2 in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. That doesn’t mean Oliver wouldn’t rather have her in the lineup.
“Alexis was voted by her teammates to be a team captain this year,” he said. “She is a perfect balance of lead by example and lead with the heart. She is one of the fiercest competitors we have on the team and is willing to do whatever it takes to make her team be successful. The best attribute I can credit her with as far as playing goes is that she makes her teammates better. Whether that is in certain plays, or off the field with character. She just makes everyone around her feel special and important.
“She is always helping to coach her teammates and keep them laughing and smiling. I have only coached her for two and a half years now and she is one of my favorite players of all time.”
Donnelly is scheduled to undergo knee surgery on Nov. 4, and she hopes to be back on the field by late April. She remains steadfast that her teammates shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves just because they lost one of their leaders.
“It shouldn’t matter who’s in the game,” Donnelly said. “You know how to play and you have to have heart and drive no matter who’s on the field. You have to be able to go into battle and put it all on the line. We just have to show up and play.”