Better than ever: twice-injured Harkness finds liberation in soccer

Mark Hazelwood • Oct 2, 2017 at 11:47 PM

NORWALK — When Kaelyn Harkness gets on a one-on-one breakaway toward the goal, there is no adrenaline rush.

Instead, it’s calmness. Everything goes blank. The soccer field is her sanctuary away from everything life brings.

There is no stress from two separate, grueling knee rehabilitations. Nor is there pressure to live up to one of the most accomplished family names in Norwalk athletics — or to help deliver the first league championship in the 19-year history of the girls soccer program.

The weight of being a senior in high school, balancing athletics with big life decisions ahead becomes mute as Harkness sprints full steam at the net — bulky brace and all.

It’s just her with the ball — and a sense of peace and silence in a place of refuge.

“Soccer is just something that I really love,” Harkness said. “I feel at home, and my mind completely clears of everything when I play. It’s just a feeling of being free and clear. I can just be me out there.”

By just being herself, Harkness has scored 25 goals in 14 matches for Norwalk (11-3), champions of the Lake division in the Sandusky Bay Conference. She’s on pace to finish first or second for single-season goals at the school, third in career goals — and was a Division II All-Ohio second team selection as a sophomore in 2015 — just five years after she began to play the sport.

But the three-sport athlete has twice had athletics taken away from her — nearly permanently. It’s why she embraces the joy and freedom of soccer. And why she’s become a problem for opposing teams.

“She’s the ‘it’ factor,” Norwalk coach Michelle Sandor said. “Kaelyn has that energy and enthusiasm that she brings to the game, where she just looks like she’s loving it. She has so much energy out there, and it makes the rest of the players better as well.”

Pushing through

Only the sound of crickets chirping in the nearby wooded area at the Norwalk Soccer Complex can be heard after a Sept. 11 match vs. Edison. A portrait of exhaustion, Harkness watches from a distance with ice heavily wrapped on her knee as her mother, Sarah Thomas, and younger sister, Gracie, take down banners of the senior players.

It’s in those moments Harkness can reflect on going to a place she hopes to never return.

During a Jan. 9, 2016 basketball game at Ontario, the then-sophomore guard was dribbling toward the basket and ready to put up a shot. She planted her right leg, and instantly felt it go. The dreaded Anterior Cruciate Ligament tear, an all too common major sports injury, had befallen Harkness.

At first, the rehabilitation process went OK. Progress was being made.

Then it was time to do a jump test — and Harkness mentally went to a place she didn’t know she was capable of.

“I had to hit a certain standard in the test, and I wasn’t able to do it,” she said. “They told me I still had to work on it a lot. I got down on myself and suddenly wasn’t motivated to do simple exercises.

“I honestly went to a dark place after that,” Harkness added. “I felt like that was so easy, and I should already have been able to do it. From many people, all I heard was ‘you can do it, get back up. I know it sucks, but try again.’”

But it was hard to hear those words.

“Because you know they’re not going through it, or maybe haven’t gone through it,” she said. “It was just really hard for me. But finally something clicked.”

All was right when Harkness returned to the soccer field last fall as a junior. She had scored 10 goals through the first seven games. But early in a Sept. 15, 2016 match at Clyde, Harkness and a player for the Fliers simultaneously kicked at a loose ball at the same time.

The force of the kick dropped her to the ground in immediate pain — for the second time in nine months.

“I thought I was done for. That was it,” Harkness said. “You hear the stories that a second ACL tear means you’re done — and there’s really no recovering from that, mentally and physically. I laid there on the turf and thought about everything, and that I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I love. It was sobering, really.”

The injury proved to be a strain of the MCL, but it was still enough to end her soccer season 11 matches early — and miss the first four games of her junior season of basketball.

“It really brought me back down,” she said. “I felt like I had to restart, and all of my success and building up got knocked right back down.”

A heavy name

Injuries aside, a welcomed burden by Harkness requires a simple walk down the hallway of the main entrance to Norwalk High School.

Portraits of past All-Ohio first team selections line both sides of the hall, where Kaelyn can see her uncle, Dennis and numerous cousins Jeff Thomas, Ben Haraway, and basketball teammate of the past three years, Jiselle Thomas.

Her father, Chris, is also on the wall as a member of the NHS Hall of Fame, along with Dennis — and he’s also in the Ashland University HOF for football, a sport where he also played briefly in the NFL and Arena Football League.

“Oh yeah, there’s a lot of pressure,” Harkness said in an excited tone. “Having my uncle on the wall. Having my dad on the wall … it makes me feel like I should be up there, too, and it really pushes me.

“My dad always likes to joke with me that I’ll never catch up to him, but we’ll see about that,” she added.

Perhaps no teammate can better breakdown the pressures and recoveries of Harkness than senior Jasmine Thomas (no relation).

Harkness and Thomas have been teammates in both basketball and soccer together.

“The recovery was a struggle, I know, and she came back quicker than usual,” Thomas said after Norwalk clinched the SBC Lake title last week — the first league title in program history.

“But for her to get hurt twice and still come back this strong along with everyone’s expectations of her — it tells me all I need to know about how tough she is.”

Thomas said there was a soccer match as sophomores that proved how care free Harkness is when it comes to playing the sport.

“There was this one time where all she had to do was tap it in — and she kept booting the ball over to the side, and it was hilarious,” Thomas said. “We kept telling her she’d have five or six goals that night if she could learn to just tap it in.

“Kaelyn is a real competitive person, but that’s not someone who is getting caught up in the pressure of a last name or injuries,” she added.

Legacy in place

Harkness will be likely four-year all-league selection on the basketball court at the end of this upcoming winter.

Certainly more league accolades and possible All-Ohio honors may be coming her way in the coming weeks from soccer. With 25 goals this season, following 26 in her previous all-state season two years ago — Harkness enters Thursday’s match vs. Clear Fork with 69 career goals and 19 assists.

But perhaps most importantly, Harkness has learned she’s stronger than she thought.

“Both physically and mentally, I learned so much from being injured,” she said. “Even though I wasn’t able to play, I learned both games better.”

Sandor has watched first-hand as Harkness stepped into a leadership role this year.

“At first she was kind of a quiet captain, but now she’s found her voice,” she said.

All the accomplishments aside, Harkness knows there will be much more to life than sports.

So why go through all the rehabilitation from two severe knee injuries?

“I felt like I had a goal in life, and if I didn’t accomplish that, I wouldn’t be myself and who I am,” Harkness said. “Just everything that people — from my last name alone — people had me at a higher expectation. I felt like if I didn’t live up to that, I wouldn’t be living up to myself and who I am as a person.”

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