Playing with pain

The Baltimore Sun

Despite sitting out all of last season, Katherine Russo is quickly earning a reputation as one of the top lacrosse goalies in Carroll County. The Winters Mill junior uses her athletic moves and near-flawless instincts to routinely devour opposing shots.

More than two years after unknowingly breaking her back during a varsity soccer game, Russo, now 16, battles through constant discomfort in her quest to help the young Falcons improve while also earning a Division I lacrosse scholarship.

"It hurts," Russo said. "The doctors said that it's just something that I'm going to have to deal with. I kind of tune it out while I play. It's one of those things where I want to play, so it doesn't really matter."

Her mother, Susan Russo, said: "She's so incredibly determined. She's a very tough person, and she doesn't allow her emotions to show. We have an assortment of every kind of heating pad and cold ice pack that you can imagine."

The injury occurred when she was a freshman. On a chilly night on a rain-slicked soccer field, Russo, a defender, slipped while attempting to kick the ball, landing awkwardly on her back. Though she immediately felt pain, she never had X-rays taken, instead undergoing physical therapy.

Writing it off as strained muscles, she finished the season. She went on to play varsity lacrosse as a freshman, club soccer in the summer and soccer as a sophomore. It wasn't until around Christmas of her sophomore year, during a routine physical prior to lacrosse season, that she finally learned the severity of her injury.

X-rays showed breaks in her L4 and L5 vertebrae, at the base of her spine. Following months of stretching and countless physical therapy sessions, the diagnosis was stunning.

And since so much time had passed since the injury, doctors said there was little they could do to alleviate the pain, at least until she finished growing.

"I sat down with her parents in January, and we decided that her health was more important than lacrosse," Winters Mill coach Courtney Vaughn said. "So they decided to hold her out a year. It wasn't getting better."

Russo was devastated, but knew it was for the best.

"The doctors told me it was my choice, whether I played or not, but that the less pressure I put on it the better I'd be," she recalled. "So I wanted to let it recuperate a little bit."

Wanting to remain a part of the team, Russo still attended every practice, "even the ones on Saturday mornings at 8 a.m.," she said. She surrendered her starting goalie job to Leanne Hollinger and spent her game days helping out in any way she could - from lining the field to videotaping the games from the press box.

"It wasn't very fun," Russo said. "I went from being the starting goalkeeper ... to painting the field. Everyone else got to play, and I got to watch."

She would not be standing on the sideline for long.

Determined to resume her career, she donned a back brace and returned for club ball last summer, then recaptured her role as starting goalie for the Falcons this spring.

So far, she's not only returned to her form of two years ago, she's surpassed it, accumulating double-digit saves in two of her first four games. Against defending Class 2A-1A state champion Century, she almost single-handedly kept her team in the game with a succession of point-blank saves in an 11-8 loss.

"She's definitely keeping us in the games closer than what we would be without her," said Vaughn, who fields a defense dominated by freshmen and sophomores. "It's good that we have a strong goalie to step up. She's confident. She has that presence in the cage."

Despite seeing her first varsity action in two years, Russo said that she's been able to improve her game by practicing every day against high-caliber shooters like teammates Kara Geiman and Jen Peters.

Russo, who says it can hurt more sitting in a classroom for 90 minutes than running around the lacrosse field, also is a member of the National Honor Society, maintaining a straight-A average in honors and advanced placement classes. Her goal is to continue her career at a Division I college, with American, Robert Morris, Loyola and Virginia Tech high on her list.

With the adrenaline flowing during games, she said she hardly notices the injury, which has little, if any, effect on her mobility. Every so often, however, such as when she twisted the wrong way while clearing the ball against Century earlier this season, she's reminded of the condition she does her best to ignore.

"The doctors told me that it's kind of a mental thing," Russo said. "It's always going to hurt - it's just how much I can put up with."

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