After suffering a knee injury in the waning moments of last season's final game, McDonogh's Kara Cristaldi has inherited the defensive post of perhaps the area's premier defender.
It would be a high-pressure situation for anyone, but Cristaldi, a second-team All-Metro player, has yet to flinch.
"I try not to look at it like I'm filling somebody's shoes," said Cristaldi. "And as far as my knee, the worst thing I could do is worry about it."
Cristaldi, a Highland resident who stands 5 feet 6 and weighs 123 pounds, ripped the medial collateral ligament in her right knee with 10 minutes left in last year's 2-0 Catholic League title victory over John Carroll.
Until that moment, Cristaldi, then a midfielder, had helped to key a transition in front of two-time All-Metro sweeper Alison Schroeder, who anchored the Eagles to their school-record 13th shutout, a school-record 19-0 season and a No. 3 ranking by USA Today, and earned All-Metro Player of the Year honors.
Asked to replace Schroeder as sweeper this year, a position Cristaldi hadn't played in 12 years of organized soccer, she didn't surprise her coaches by immediately accepting.
"She knew we needed someone who commands respect, a calm, no-panic player who reads the game well and settles things down," said co-coach Maurice Boylan, whose Eagles (13-0-2) are ranked No. 3 in USA Today and have a 33-0-2 unbeaten streak.
"Alison had 2 1/2 years to establish her role as a sweeper. Kara was thrown into the fire, but I think she expected it."
Unselfishness has been the story of Cristaldi's career. Over the last 2 1/2 seasons, which includes 19 goals and 40 assists, she has found it better to give than to receive.
Taking the advice of a team doctor from the Bennett Institute, Cristaldi eschewed a knee operation.
Instead, Cristaldi used intense physical therapy to work her leg into shape, "which gives you an indication of how tough she is," said co-coach Ted Scocos.
Starting with leg exercises, then weight-lifting, Cristaldi gradually worked her way back to running. She wore a heavy brace for three months and began testing the knee through off-season games with the Olympic Developmental State Team, as well as on the Columbia Express club team.
"I was in the weight room just about every afternoon with a trainer," said Cristaldi, who maintains a 3.2 grade-point average. "The entire process took five or six months."
Cristaldi reported to practice ready to resume her spot at midfield, the position she has occupied since first kicking a ball at age 5.
Three games into the season, however, Boylan and Scocos moved Cristaldi to sweeper, where she often plays before freshman keeper Laura Fawley.
"We didn't want to take her out of midfield, but we had to, even though it was new to her," Boylan said.
With Cristaldi in the back, McDonogh has nine shutouts, having outscored opponents, 69-11. The Eagles, who play 21 games, are on pace to rival last year's team, which outscored opponents, 80-12, with a school-record 13 shutouts.
Concentrating on defense has Cristaldi's production (two goals, 11 assists) down from last year (six, 16), but that should change.
"She's rock-solid back there, but still a big part of our offense, doing most of our corner kicks and a lot of our set pieces," said Scocos. "I project Kara to be a Division I player."
Having scored 1020 on the Scholastic Assessment Test, Cristaldi hopes to take her talents to either Clemson, Vanderbilt, Loyola, Maryland or Pennsylvania.
Most important about Cristaldi, says right defender Michelle Harrison, has been her solid working relationship with teammates, especially fellow defenders Julie Baker and Liz French.
"She's gotten more comfortable at sweeper now," said Harrison. "The team respects her and likes her, which makes her a natural leader."