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Published: Thursday, 8/21/2003

Northview soccer standout back after surgeries

BY DONALD EMMONS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Jessica Okoroafo played soccer only one way before last October.

That way was several steps faster than almost anyone else on the field.

Northview High School's most productive goal-scorer the past two seasons, Okoroafo moved with a lightning quickness that seemed almost unfair for Wildcat opponents.

She scored 31 goals in her first two seasons and was named to the Division I All-Ohio first team last year - one of only two sophomores so honored. Teams devised defenses strictly to slow her down.

Then disaster struck - not once, but twice. In the space of five months, Okoroafo tore up her right knee twice. Since October, she's had two surgeries and endured two long, grueling rehabilitations.

Now, as Northview prepares to open its season Saturday against Mentor, Okoroafo, a junior, is trying once again to work herself into game shape and overcome her fears about getting re-injured.

“Before each practice I think about it,” Okoroafo said. “But once I start playing I usually stop thinking about it. Mentally, I'm really nervous, but I'm hoping to get over it.”

In some ways, Okoroafo's great promise has made the past 10 months especially frustrating.

The Sylvania player has been recognized nationally by soccer officials who select players for the junior national soccer teams. She has been listed among the top 100 girl players in the country for her age group.

“She's very quick, very field-conscious, very good under pressure and a very good shooter,” said Northview's first-year head coach, Rick Burgin.

Okoroafo scored 18 goals as a freshman. Last season, she was on pace to at least match that number, racking up 13 goals by October.

Her season came to an abrupt end during a match against Northern Lakes League-rival Anthony Wayne.

“I just shot the ball and landed wrong,” Okoroafo said, recalling the initial injury to her right knee. “I walked off the field and I didn't think anything was that wrong, but my knee swelled really quickly.”

She soon learned she had torn

Following the surgery, the injured leg required daily rehabilitation. For the next four months, Okoroafo stretched, lifted weights, and did aerobic workouts.

Finally, she received the OK to play again in February. Unfortunately, the excitement of returning to the field lasted about 20 minutes, or half a game. In an indoor soccer league match - her first game since October - Okoroafo re-injured the knee.

Okoroafo, who was wearing a knee brace, said she was changing directions when the knee gave out. She knew immediately what had happened: She had torn her ACL - again.

“I really couldn't believe it,” Okoroafo said. “I didn't think it would happen again.”

As Northview begins its season this weekend, it's not certain if Okoroafo will play.

Burgin, who was an assistant coach at St. Ursula the past three years, has known Okoroafo for about 10 years. He has coached against her and knows how much she wants to play at full tilt. But he plans to bring her back slowly.

With several key returners back from last season's NLL title team, Burgin doesn't need to lean on Okoroafo right away.

“She is such a critical player for us, but it's not worth risking her future,” Burgin said.

Despite the two knee injuries, Okoroafo's future remains bright. Major universities are filling her mailbox with letters and brochures.

Teammate Lindsay Meridieth can relate to Okoroafo's fears. Meridieth, a senior, has been one of the Wildcats' top players since her freshman year. An established sprinter, she qualified for the state track meet as a sophomore, then suffered a torn ACL last fall.

“She, mentally, was probably a little more upset because it has happened to her twice,” Meridieth said. “She's definitely timid right now, but if I were her, I'd be doing the same thing.”

Meridieth, who still wears a knee brace, said getting over the mental hurdle is the key to feeling completely recovered from such an injury. She has been impressed with Okoroafo's work and determination to get back on the field after the second surgery.

“Going through it once was just like the worst trauma I've ever been through my entire life,” Meridieth said. “It feels like you have so much on your shoulders. All the time (rehabbing) and there's a lot of pain to deal with. ... It just hurts. Going through all that twice, I just could not imagine.”

Okoroafo believes she'll eventually regain what ability she may have lost to the injuries.

She expects to be sprinting up and down the field with her old, eye-popping speed.

“I should be playing pretty soon,” Okoroafo said.



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