Ashley Engel has become an expert on knees.
When a friend or family member gets a knee ache, Engel, the 5-foot-9 starting goalkeeper on the Saint Martin’s University women’s soccer team, likely can diagnose the pain.
Not only is a career in sports medicine and physical therapy in Engel’s plans, she’s had vivid personal experience – six surgeries on the same left knee.
Since 2010, the 22-year-old redshirt senior and her left leg have undergone a meniscus transplant on the knee, several arthroscopic procedures to remove excess cartilage and scar tissue, and had a metal plate inserted to repair a broken ankle.
Now healthy again, and sporting a thick, black knee brace that covers most of her left leg, Engel has made 64 saves in 12 starts in goal for the Saints (6-8 overall, 4-6 Great Northwest Athletic Conference), who play host to Seattle Pacific at 2 p.m. Thursday at the SMU soccer field.
“I’ve been so happy to say that I’ve seen a huge turnaround and playing back to where I was before I was hurt,” Engel said.
Engel mostly avoided injuries prior to arriving at Saint Martin’s, although she did tear an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at age 13.
She arrived in Lacey after an outstanding prep career at Burien’s Kennedy Catholic High School, and was thrust into the starting goalkeeper’s role for the Saints that fall.
She had a combined 34 starts her freshman and sophomore seasons, earning back-to-back all-GNAC honorable mention. And despite injuring her left knee during the season-opener in 2009, she managed to get through the season. The end-of-season diagnosis? A shredded meniscus, which required a transplant from a cadaver donor.
Over a two-year stretch, complications with scar tissue and cartilage around the knee arose, which required more surgeries. In 2010, she took a medical redshirt.
Between physical therapy and strength training, Engel spent several hours a day rehabbing the knee, often doing the same exercises over and over again. While there were times of frustration and wondering why she was persevering, ending her soccer career wasn’t an option.
“It’s (soccer) always been a part of my life,” Engel said. “I think my parents, coaches and people around me saw how much it hurt me. Every time after surgery, I’d work out and see how it’s doing, but something was holding me back. I think a few times, I’d get to a point where I wasn’t seeing results. It was hard to accept it. I just had to remember in the back of my mind it takes time.”
Just when things were turning around, Engle suffered more left-knee damage during a spring practice earlier this year while diving for a ball in goal.
After an MRI, the preliminary diagnosis was another torn ACL. She was advised to quit soccer, but her June surgery revealed the ACL was still intact and more scoping was necessary.
Rob Walker, now in his seventh season as coach of the Saint Martin’s men’s and women’s soccer teams, didn’t know if his redshirt senior goalkeeper would be ready in time for the season. But through 14 games, Walker said she’s right where he wants her to be. She’s tallied 930 minutes in goal and her 13 goals allowed (1.26 per game average) ranks fifth in the GNAC. Engel leads the conference in saves per game (4.92). In the Saints’ previous matchup with Seattle Pacific on Sept. 29, Engel made 11 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss.
“There have been a few games where she pulled off great saves,” Walker said. “She doesn’t get the credit she deserves for good performances. … She’s prospering. She’s more than carrying her share of the weight of the team.”
Engel has developed arthritis in the left knee, which is heavily scarred, while her right knee is 100 percent healthy. Although she needs to ice her left knee after every practice and game, her kicking strength and lateral mobility are close to, if not better than, where she was before the surgeries.
It wasn’t the path she expected, but Engel said her collegiate athletic experience has helped shape her.
“It’s affected me in so many ways on and off the field,” Engel said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. It’s completed me and helped me figure out who I am as a person.”Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org @MegWochnick theolympian.com/southsoundsports