Kristen Cannon thinks of the waning days of her college lacrosse career as a bonus.
She came awfully close to not being able to play more than the first few minutes of the season when, in that first game, she suffered a torn ACL — the third in her left knee in five years.
"I think it was the second time I touched the ball when I was going to goal from behind and a double team came at me," she said. "I tried to do almost a 360 jump into the plant and I remember collapsing. I had that familiar, dreaded feeling I've felt too many times."
The Manchester Valley graduate thought that was it. She wasn't willing to go through another surgery and rehab, redshirt the season and come back next spring. Planning to become a physical therapist, she had been accepted into the three-year program at Duke beginning next fall.
"I love to compete, I love sports and I've loved my time at Hopkins playing lacrosse and I will miss it so much," she said. "I'll be sad to leave it behind, but I look at it like it's time for me. If my body was at a different point, it might be different, but there comes a time when you have to be an adult and be mature. I guess I need to be thankful for the time I have had and not push it too far. Definitely no regrets. I could have had next year but then I could have lost this year."
As Cannon worked with Hopkins trainer Erin Long after the injury, she started to realize that she might still be able to play. She could do more than she thought. She hadn't lost a lot of muscle and she did extra strengthening and balancing exercises to further support the knee. It didn't hurt and it seemed more stable than she expected.
"I've been through it so many times [Long] trusts what I tell her," Cannon said.
She had to sign a liability waiver to play, she said, but she got back on the field on March 13 — just 30 days after the injury.
Blue Jays coach Janine Tucker said she was a little leery at first about Cannon coming back, feeling protective of the player who as a middle schooler came to crazy hair day at Hopkins lacrosse camp with a nest of blue jays in her hair.
Tucker told Cannon she couldn't come back unless she was willing to go all in. She was, and the results speak for themselves.
Cannon has started nine of the past 10 games as an attacking midfielder, contributing five goals, three assists, six ground balls and three caused turnovers. She'll finish her career in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Jays travel to College Park on Friday to face Virginia in a first-round matchup at 4 p.m.
"She's playing some of the best lacrosse and moving some of the best I've ever seen her," Tucker said. "Not only does Kristen bring a physical presence, she's a very good player for us, but she brings a calming influence, she brings leadership, she brings intense work ethic, a never give-up attitude, so the intrinsic things that this child was saying she wanted to be able to bring back to this team out on the field, I was just beside myself I was so happy."
Cannon, who will graduate next week with a degree in psychology, tries not to think about the knee too much. She tries not to attempt the 360s anymore, but she can do most of what she did before. She wears a knee brace but she was wearing one the day she got hurt.
"At first, I was trying not to dodge, not to do this or that, but now I'm doing everything. I'm not thinking about it. I'm not favoring the other knee, because I think if I played scared I wouldn't be able to get on the field. I've had so many issues with the knee that I'm very in touch with how it feels. It's already damaged and I don't want to damage anything else, but I do want to play well."
As a senior, she know her leadership is important on the field.
"I like to think coming back from this one it was mainly to be a stable vocal leader, to take care of the ball, talk people through, go to cage when I can. I can feed. I can get out of a double team like before. We have many good dodgers. Dene' DiMartino, Haley Schweizer and Shannon Fitzgerald are really good at that, but I like to think that if I need to step up and do that I'm able to."
Cannon tore the ACL for the first time in February 2012, had surgery in March and missed her senior season at Manchester Valley. It happened again in February of her freshman year at Hopkins, so she redshirted. She's on her fourth knee brace.
"Both of my parents supported me every step of the way. I wasn't thinking this would happen again, but I told them after the last tear, that, 'I won't put you or myself through this again. If it tears again, it's probably just meant to be.' When it happened again, I was thinking, 'You're done. You won't have to worry about lacrosse anymore,'" Cannon said. "I was devastated when it happened, but then I could walk and then I could run, I was like, 'I don't feel like I'm done. I think this one has one more season in it.' My parents were looking like they were going to have a heart attack, but I'm smart. I don't want to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my like, but I think I would have regretted not playing this last season."
Tucker sees that no-regrets attitude every day.
"Kristen comes with a mindset where she's playing the most free and loose and uninhibited that I've ever seen her play – and on a torn ACL," said Tucker. I attribute it to her growth over four years and her level of maturity, but I think that what she's done is place her team, the success of the team and her ability to make her teammates better above herself and she feels so happy about that. She's just playing with a kind of joy. She had the sport taken away from her twice for extended periods of time and so this go around, she's like, 'I'm going to enjoy every second that I have.' It's really just a beautiful thing to watch, to be a part of."
In high school, Cannon wanted to be a physician's assistant or a physical therapist, but her interest turned to therapy after her first injury. She plans to consider all types of physical therapy, but is pretty sure she wants to work with injured athletes because she's been there.
As Cannon moves on from college sports, she also expects to continue playing a game every now and then as long as he doesn't have any trouble with the knee.
"I think I can run and swim and things like that," she said. "I can't imagine myself giving it up. I played soccer and basketball in high school and I could see myself continuing. If it could handle Division I lacrosse, I think it could handle a little pick-up."