McDonogh soccer star Kelsey Smith collected a pass well outside the penalty area, took a couple quick touches to set up her right foot and then let go a shot from 30 yards aimed for the top left of the goal.
Sure enough, it got over the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper and went in.
The smile on Smith’s face went from ear to ear. The cheers from the bench were a little louder. And the hugs from her teammates were a little tighter.
The goal — coming in a comfortable win over Northern-Calvert on Sept. 14 — was similar to many Smith has scored since her passion for soccer first came about when she was 3 years old.
And yet, it was something entirely different.
Away from the game for nearly a year after suffering an ACL injury in late August, the forward felt she was officially back with that first goal of her senior year providing confirmation.
“At that time, I felt pure happiness,” she said. “For me, it was a different feeling than any other goal I had scored in my career. After not being able to play for 10 months, this moment made me realize the love I have for the game and how much I missed it.”
For Smith, a Maryland commit who has been on varsity since her freshman year, this senior year has been a welcome challenge that nobody in McDonogh’s storied program has ever experienced. The Eagles, who won three straight Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference titles dating back to the 2019 season, missed last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. So in addition to working her way back from the injury, Smith is just one of three players on the team with varsity experience.
She went from being a sophomore contributor on a team stacked with proven talent to the unquestioned leader and go-to player on offense.
An overwhelming task? Not a chance.
Smith has scored 16 goals and added two assists in leading the No. 1 Eagles (11-2) atop the league standings with a 4-0 mark heading into their regular-season finale at John Carroll on Tuesday. She has 36 goals and five assists in her three years of varsity.
“It’s the most difficult leadership challenge that we’ve ever had — being a senior captain, someone we look to for goals on a team with 13 other players that had zero varsity experience,” said McDonogh coach Harry Canellakis. “That in combination with what she’s had to deal with over the past year — the individual struggles with her ACL — it took a long time for her to come back to where she’s at right now. So I think the fact she’s been so selfless during a time she’s really had to focus on her own recovery tells a lot about her. She’s done an amazing job.”
Smith’s approach to returning to form and becoming the leader of the young team was doing everything she could to get back to her familiar self. That includes coming to practice and games with a reassuring smile.
“One thing that I’ve definitely noticed about Kelsey through the years is her love for the game,” said fellow senior Olivia Ozbolt. “She’s so excited for every practice and every game, like just to be out on the field, which I really admire. She brings so much life to the sport. Kelsey really pushes us on the field, and when I play with her I feel so motivated and have so much energy and I always just want to do well.”
Compact and powerful, Smith can be quickly recognized when the ball is at her feet. She is explosive and decisive with her ability to take on as many defenders as necessary. When she creates the needed space, she’s a pure finisher. This season, she has scored two goals in five games and they’ve often come when the team needs them most. In the Eagles’ biggest win to date — a 3-0 decision over their closest rival, Archbishop Spalding — Smith broke open a close game with two second-half goals.
“She’s got all the tools and utilizes them well,” said Spalding coach Ashly Kennedy. “To come out after tearing an ACL and being able to work herself back into it … she’s building the confidence back up as she’s playing and I think that’s really a testament to her mentality. So, at the end of the day, she’s a player that has the great mental component and she’s got the special field sense with her dribbling ability and her finishing ability with both feet in and around the box. She’s a threat anywhere.
“As far as in the league, she’s the one player that everyone is concerned about.”
McDonogh’s success — the Eagles have won eight IAAM A championships and their 2019 title was the sixth in seven years — comes with an understanding of the commitment it takes. Smith paid close attention as a sophomore playing alongside the likes of Baylee DeSmit and Lily McCarthy.
Under the unique circumstances that came with not having a 2020 season, patience was required from the new players, and Smith’s easy-going manner and hard work have proven to be ideal as the Eagles haven’t missed a beat.
When asked what she likes most about soccer, her response is immediate.
“Honestly, the people I’ve met throughout my soccer career is what I love most about the game because if it wasn’t for them — my teammates and my coaches — I wouldn’t be excited to go to practice every day,” she said. “I just love this team so much and we’ve come so far.”
In the past decade, McDonogh and Spalding have usually ended up in the championship game, but this season has a different feel. While the two perennials are still showing top form, the other four teams in the league — Mercy, Notre Dame Prep, St. Paul’s and John Carroll — have emerged as formidable contenders. The league’s six teams are all ranked in The Sun’s Top 15 poll with one-goal games a constant in the regular season.
Smith and the Eagles welcome the challenge when the playoffs get started on Friday.
“I think it will take focus and determination every day in practice because we need to be at our best just like it’s a game,” she said. “Against every team, we need to have the same mindset going in and it doesn’t matter if it’s our biggest rival or a team we may have beaten 8-0 in previous seasons because it’s not the same now. All the teams are pretty even — you can see from the scores. We need to stay humble. We know what we’re capable of and we want to show everyone we’re still the same McDonogh team as the previous years.”