Assistant Sports Editor
The whistle blew and Morgan Bazyk never stopped. Caught up in the excitement of playing her first varsity game, she never spared the thought, charging forward while everyone else on the field hit the brakes. Rules are rules, though, and in girls lacrosse, players must stand in place when referees sound off an infraction.
"Right now that should be second nature to everybody and it was a completely rookie mistake that you would expect of a girl brand-new to lacrosse," said her coach, Dave Miceli.
The misstep drew a warning from the official, surprised at the need to remind such a skilled player. But Bazyk, only wanting the game to continue, offered a sheepish apology.
"She's like, ‘It's my first game,'" Miceli said. "And yet here's this girl cradling left, right, switching hands, up high, making goals."
"The ref said, ‘Wow, you're pretty good,'" Bazyk recalled.
Actually, Bazyk had been pretty good for a while.
If everything had gone according to plan, Bazyk's debut for Burr and Burton Academy would have happened two years ago. Now a willowy junior midfielder, the team's primary playmaker and second-leading scorer, she was then a supremely talented youth prospect looking ahead to four years with the Bulldogs.
"She dominated every team she played," Miceli said. "We had this game where Equinox [youth lacrosse] plays the JV and in seventh grade Morgan was the dominant player on that field.
That was before back-to-back knee injuries stole away her freshman and sophomore seasons, as well as pieces of other tendons grafted to surgically replace the torn anterior cruciate ligaments in each leg.
Her left ACL gave out first, along with the meniscus beneath it -- a JV soccer injury.
The pain was there, just like the other knee the next year. However, beginning the story, "This is funny ," Bazyk remains more lighthearted about the first experience.
"I was a skinny freshman. I was tiny and I thought I could do it all," she said. "I was playing and I was standing on one leg and a girl -- she didn't know how to play defense -- she came and took me out. I popped right back up and was like, ‘OK, let's go,' finished the soccer game.
"My knee's a balloon at this point. Kept playing soccer for two more weeks, the swelling didn't go down, and finally I was like, ‘Mom, I think something's wrong with my knee."
Her mother, Donna Bazyk, remembers asking, "Why is your knee blue?"
The ACL, located in the middle of the knee, stabilizes the joint and keeps the tibia from sliding in front of the femur, according to the National Library of Medicine website. Considering women tear the ligament more frequently than men, an injury like that was not a total shock.
"Females have a higher rate of ACL tears and a lot of times you'll either have them from a lateral blow to the leg, like in football if a linebacker comes in, or a lot of times with females what will happen is non-contact," said BBA athletic trainer Allisa Miller. "You'll have your right foot planted and then the twisting [tears it]."
After the diagnosis and surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire, the six-to-nine-month recovery period ruled her out for her freshman season. Her action was limited to rehabilitation exercises and charting the team's stats.
The year of anticipation that followed only made the second injury, a torn ACL in her right knee, that much more devastating.
"As a coach, there have been very few times where I've been at a complete loss of words and an ability to work with an athlete," Miceli said. "And frankly, I had nothing that I could offer her in way of consolation."
With 10 minutes left in the final practice of the preseason, Bazyk pivoted into contact from a teammate in a one-on-one play and "my knee just gave out right there," she said.
In spite of her gut instinct, the first doctor's visit offered a glimmer of hope -- the ACL might be OK. That was dashed the next day, though, when X-rays confirmed the worst-case scenario: Another surgery, another season washed away, another six months grinding through rehab.
"It was the most silent car ride I think we've ever had," Donna Bazyk said. "It was unbelievable to hear that this had happened again to her."
Watching Bazyk play now, it is often hard to tell that her last full season of lacrosse was as an eighth-grader. She has the fitness needed to play at a high level from one end to the other. With her height, skill and fluid athleticism, she makes plays beyond the ability of most on the field.
"A lot of people, they don't realize that and once they realize it they're like, ‘Oh, wow.' I'm inspired by her, to be honest," said teammate Katy Jones. "She's my best friend and I've learned so much from her. Her passion for the sport and everything is so great. Even though we're the same age, it's something to look up to."
"Just playing makes her happy," Jones said.
And there are neither the braces nor the hesitation common among athletes returning from serious injury.
"The way she moves, I call her ‘spider monkey' because she really has no trepidations," Miller said.
Bazyk said she is "a lot stronger, a lot more mentally confident" because she learned from the mistakes of her attempt to recover from the first injury. There would be no shortcuts, she wouldn't "blow through rehab" the second time around.
"I guess you could say I'm more balanced because I've had both of them done -- new knees," Bazyk said.
"Oh yeah, plenty," she said, adding commentary while pointing out the incisions that harvested patella tendon to fix her left knee and a piece of the hamstring to mend her right knee.
There was weightlifting and more weightlifting -- before or after school, depending on her hockey schedule during the winter. She also ratcheted the cardio and agility work up another notch.
"What I would do is run three miles, do sprints, and then run another six," Bazyk said. "Really pushing myself. And no one sees that. No one sees the extra sprints you do by yourself, the extra hills you run. I think it's hard work and persistence that got me where I am and is going to get me to where I want to be."
During the months when running wasn't an option, she had a lacrosse stick in her hands playing wall-ball at the park or at home in the basement.
"When she couldn't move her knee, she would move her hands and so a lot of her stickwork and those sure-handed catches comes from her making great use of the time that she had to recover, doing as much as she could when she had the time and the opportunity," Miceli said.
"This is not like a walk-on-the-field, shrug-your-shoulders, give-it-our-best-shot [thing]. Morgan's the kind of athlete that does all those little things all along when no one's looking," he said. "It's not an accident that she's out there with the skills that she has."
But it hasn't been a seamless transition, either.
As Miceli put it, the biggest hurdle for Bazyk was always going to be learning curve that comes with returning to the team game: Adjusting to playing on a field with high school players, reading and reacting to a higher-speed game.
Last week's game against Vermont Academy showed the growth she's made. Bazyk scored three times but also set up several other scoring chances and orchestrated the Bulldogs' transition game.
"She really helps us, takes a leading position, and she helps us stay calm as a team with her passing," Jones said. "She connects things a lot. And she can read all these plays that are going to happen before anyone can see they're about to happen."
The time away from the game, the grueling rehab, the uncertainty of returning to her favorite sport also cultivated her leadership ability and an "open-mindedness to life," according to her mother.
In the fall, she coached a youth soccer team for the Manchester recreation department. Now, she's finally a lacrosse player who's also an A- and B-student taking AP classes and with a part-time job at a restaurant.
"She's so mature [now]. She's more mature than I was at her age," Donna Bazyk said. "She's seen more of the bigger picture in life and people because of these injuries."
"After my first goal, in a scrimmage, I did a lap of the field I was so excited," Bazyk said. "It's the best feeling to know you've worked so hard for something and for it to finally be there. It's amazing. I love it."
In 14 games this year, Bazyk has 29 goals and seven assists for the 12-2 Bulldogs, all vindication for getting back to the sport she loves. Celebrating an exhibition-game goal wasn't out of place after the premature end to her sophomore campaign.
"Because last season I only made it two weeks, I was just hoping for three weeks," she said.
At first, her parents were skeptical of the second attempt at a comeback, hopeful to protect her from future harm. They warmed to the idea after seeing her determination to have a junior season.
No lacrosse? "I wouldn't let that be a reality," Morgan Bazyk said.
"As her mother, seeing her go through this twice has been very difficult," Donna Bazyk said. "I've admired her toughness and perseverance and I think [it] has helped her continue to do what she loves to do."
And she came back with ideas. Before the start of the season, Bazyk met with Miceli to talk about a drill she came across to help the team's catching and throwing. The exercise has since become a staple with Bazyk in charge, adding to it to find new challenges for teammates.
"So we set aside time in every practice -- it's a fantastic drill -- we call it ‘Morgan's drill,'" Miceli said. "I'm sure we'll call it Morgan's drill long after she graduates and we'll still be doing it."
The journey from promising eighth-grader to grateful junior also inspired her to study anatomy and sports medicine, and take up a field study at Cornerstone Fitness in Manchester. These days, if a teammate twists a knee or tweaks something, they can turn to their own amateur expert.
"She knows so much about the body and knees that it's ridiculous," Jones said.
And, finally, she knows what it's like to play high school lacrosse.
"Every game I play, literally, I play it like it's my last game because with these knees you never know," she said earlier this month, laughing through a smile. "Even practice, I love being here."