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Smith comes back from injury to help Hamburg girls flourish

COMEBACK — Jessie Smith has returned from a torn ACL to contribute for Hamburg during a semifinal run. Photo courtesy of Ron Larson.
Though playing soccer with a knee brace takes some getting used to, Jessie Smith is not complaining. She is too busy feeling the joy of being back out on the field.

The senior missed her entire junior year of sports, which included not only the girls soccer season, but also basketball and track, as the result of a torn ACL she suffered last summer. Unsure how it was going to go being back on the field, Smith said that she has been pleasantly surprised with her progress.

‘I’ve just been pushing through,” she said. “The brace is a pain, but I’m slowly getting used to it and learning how to play again. The game came back to me a lot faster than I thought it would.”

Smith is not only back, but she has picked up where she left off, after her sophomore season. Smith, a captain, is fourth on team with 20 points, including seven goals.

She scored and added an assist in the Bulldogs’ playoff opening 4 – 1 win against Iroquois on Oct. 24. Two days later, sixth-seeded Hamburg advanced to the Class A semifinals on Oct. 29 against No. 2 Grand Island, with a 2 – 1 win at third-seeded Springville-Griffith Institute. The Class A final will be Saturday, Nov. 2 starting 4 p.m. at Amherst.

“It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, to see her come back like that,” said Hamburg head coach Tom Zugger, who has also coached Smith on a Hamburg premier travel team, for four years. “She’s almost at 100 percent. She’s incredible. She’s having a great year. She never gives up on a ball. She’s a real pleasure to have around.”

Zugger, who has stepped in to coach while Jenny Bagley is on maternity leave, pointed out that players suffering that kind of injury can sometimes lose some desire or frustrate easily, because they don’t return as strong. But not in the case of Smith, who Zugger called a great example.

In fact, Smith said that she is more than happy to run or take extra repetitions in practice. She said it may be cliche, but when athletes get injured, they then understand how lucky they are, to be able to do something they love. She added it was not easy to watch, as her Hamburg teammates reached the sectional semifinals last season, before bowing out in the playoffs. She wanted the best for her team, but could not help but feel helpless.

‘I try not to complain about running and stuff, because I’m happy to do it now,” Smith said. “Last year was really hard; going from doing something your whole life and that’s all you do and then all of a sudden you can’t do it anymore and just have to watch your teammates. You think, ‘I want to be out there with them.’”

Smith did not pick the game back up until August, when preseason practices started, a year after having the ACL surgery. She was cleared to get back on the field in May, but missed tryouts to play travel over the summer. She said that being surrounded by friends and a variety of solid players has also helped in her recovery.

“I’m really happy we’re doing well,” Smith said. “We have a lot of good seniors and all of the underclassmen are great. I’m close with a lot of my teammates.”

The team has been led offensively by Kara Daly, who scored twice and assisted on Smith’s tally against Iroquois, and then added a goal in the quarterfinal win. Daly has racked up 30 goals and 11 assists. Zugger noted that Daly is a rare talent, but she could not do it without junior midfielders Amy Villarini and Ashley Kabza winning the balls in the middle.

Senior defender Lexi Higgins also notched a goal in the opening-round win. Villarini, whom Smith called one of her best friends, notched the opening goal against Springville. Villarini has 10 goals and 10 assists, while Kabza has notched 8 goals and 12 assists.

Zugger said the team’s biggest surprise has been freshman goalkeeper Julie Whipple, whom he said has played “out of her mind,” throughout the season.

“It’s one of the nicest groups I’ve ever coached,” Zugger said. “They all like each other and it’s a real team effort. If we have a problem, it’s that the team is too unselfish and doesn’t take enough shots.”

Smith said the team was hoping to get another shot at Williamsville South, if both teams can get to the final. South handed Hamburg two losses, during the Bulldogs’ 12 – 3 – 3 season. She said the two sides have a mutual respect for one another.

“We’re hoping to get to play Will. South again because they’re the only team we seem to lose to every season, so it would be nice to finally beat them,” Smith said.

Zugger said that he is optimistic about his team’s chances in the semifinal and then potentially giving South a run. In one of the two games the teams’ played this year, Hamburg led 1 – 0 at halftime, before falling 2 – 1.

“I think we’re going to get to the finals. Our objective is to win there and get to the regional,” Zugger admitted. “We played right with Williamsville South in two tight games. We had one game in the bag and let it get away from us.”

Hoping to play in college, Smith said, by then, she could get rid of that pesky knee brace, but for now, she’ll leave it on, if it means getting to play another high school game.

“To be able to watch her develop and then comeback this season has been a real joy,” Zugger said.

Also locally, Lake Shore and Eden each won opening round sectional playoff games, before being eliminated from postseason play.

Lake Shore, seeded 14th in Class A, defeated Sweet Home 3 – 1, before falling to No. 3 Springville 6 – 0, during the pre-quarterfinals on Oct. 22. The Eagles, who finished 6 – 10 – 2, received 3 goals from Melanie Linsmair in their playoff win. The junior finished with a team-leading 21 goals and 51 points. Eden, the No. 13 seed in Class B, fell to No. 4 Akron 8 - 1 on Oct. 23, in a rematch of last year’s sectional final. The Raiders, who finished 5 – 9 – 2, had defeated Lackawanna 10 – 0, to open the postseason.

Frontier fell in the opening round of Class AA 2 – 1, to Niagara Falls, in penalty kicks. Hannah Lease had the Falcons’ lone goal. Frontier finished the season 2 – 12 – 2.

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