Kaitlyn Kerr braces for another successful season

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

Kaitlyn Kerr's near full-length brace has become as permanent a fixture on the field as her Duke jersey.

DURHAM, N.C. -- When it comes to staking a claim to soccer supremacy, there is no time like the present for Duke. All 11 starters return from a team that came painfully close to the first national title in program history, losing 1-0 to undefeated Stanford in last season's championship game.

Rarely is any college team able to enjoy the luxury of such continuity, let alone a team that won 22 games and an ACC title a season ago despite its youth. If preseason No. 1 Stanford is the team to beat, No. 2 Duke is the team most likely to do so. For a program long in the shadow of neighbor North Carolina, it's a time when the possibilities seem endless.

And yet for one of the endeavor's most important parts, the picture is different, the timing more urgent. For junior All-America midfielder Kaitlyn Kerr, reality is always that there may be no time but the present.

Duke's challenge this season will be to avoid looking down the road toward where it wants to return rather than where it is in the journey at a given moment. But for Kerr, five surgeries -- including three in three years on her left knee -- mean she has little choice but to take her opportunities 90 minutes at a time. Trying to play each game like it's your last isn't as much of a cliché when it reasonably might be.

"Kaitlyn, she's the heart and soul of our team, there's no question about it," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "Every time she steps on the field, she just commits 100 percent. She's defending, she's attacking, she's a fearless ball winner in midfield for us, and she's just constant energy. She's just a dynamic personality."

Graham Hays

Still struggling to recover from last winter's microfracture surgery, Kaitlyn Kerr has been relegated to water girl duties at Duke's training camp.

Even at 5-foot-5, Kerr is the easiest player in college soccer to spot on the field. As her coach suggested, that is partly because she's often the one in the middle of the action. She tied for the team lead with 11 goals a season ago, including five during the team's NCAA tournament run, and added five assists for the second season in a row. When not scoring or setting up goals, the latter far and away her preference, she's throwing herself into tackles and covering ground like a marathoner.

But those skills aside, it's the big black brace on her left leg that makes her so easy to spot. Extending all the way from the leg of her shorts to her sock, it's the kind of brace that seems specifically designed for someone determined to defy physiology, and perhaps common sense. A fixture in one form or another during her time at Duke, it will be there every time she steps on a field in the future. There was a time she loathed it, but "embrace the brace" has become her mantra.

It's the symbol of the bargain she struck with herself to trade comfort for competition. Without it, the cumulative toll of her injuries would have already forced her out of the sport. With it, well, she's here for now.

"My parents always say you want to be able to walk your kids when you're older," Kerr said. "And if I can't push my kids in a stroller, I think there's going to be something wrong. All my doctors tell me I'm going to have to have a knee replacement at an early age. But right now, soccer is the love of my life, so I need to do what I can to play. And I realize I'm going to, but I just want to have a good life, as well."

The pain in her knee was so unbearable by the end of last season that she made her considerable postseason contributions despite barely setting foot on the practice field for the final month. It wasn't just soccer. Kerr would carefully plan her days on campus ahead of time, leaving her backpack at home to save any extra weight on the leg and figuring out what route between classes would allow her to stop and rest as needed. Lunch and leisure time lost out to whatever required the fewest steps.

"I just really had to plan out everything because too much walking could really hurt my knee," Kerr said. "And I wanted to save everything I could for game time."

That leg nevertheless nearly took last season's championship game to overtime, a left-footed drive from distance headed for the top right corner of the goal until Stanford keeper Emily Oliver made the save of the season to push it to safety late in the second half. The next time Kerr takes the field for the Blue Devils will be the first time since that game in the College Cup. Following microfracture surgery in December, the same surgery she had after her freshman season, she was unable to participate in the spring season and was limited through much of the summer to passing or juggling the ball on the sideline.

With only about two weeks remaining before the start of the regular season, Duke sent Kerr home early from training camp in Wilmington, N.C., so she could get an MRI on the still-troublesome knee. She admitted she wasn't sure what she would have done if the verdict had been surgery for a fourth time. Instead, she got what passed for good news under the circumstances, a diagnosis of a cyst on her meniscus and a recommendation for platelet rich plasma therapy, in which Kerr's own blood is spun in a centrifuge and the platelets reinjected into the knee to speed healing.

While limited to distributing water to teammates during the team's final preseason practice last weekend, she expects to be on the field for the regular-season opener at William & Mary on Friday. Indeed, she hopes to play not just this season and next for the Blue Devils but beyond college, perhaps professionally in Europe. She's also aware she may need a different potential career path.

"My parents are always telling me, and I'm realizing it now, that any day, this could be my last day," Kerr said. "Like when I had to go get that MRI, I was thinking this might be my last. These surgeries are getting draining on my body; every surgery is harder to come back from than the last. Every single day, that's why I try to play as hard as I can because I feel like that could be my last game in my circumstance."

At a time when there is ever more conversation in sports about the long-term effect of injuries, it may be a matter of opinion whether Kerr's sacrifice is commendable or condemnable. What isn't debatable is it's a personal choice. She is the one who experiences the pain and chooses to put in the hours to get her body to a point where it can hold up for 90 minutes. She is genuinely optimistic that the PRP therapy and a cautious training approach will make this season a less-excruciating experience. And she is far from a joyless automaton driven to destroy herself. Her greatest lament, in fact, is college soccer can take itself just a bit too seriously for a game that ought to be fun. Fun is why she deals with the surgeries, the pain and the brace.

"She's a fighter," teammate Natasha Anasi said. "She works so hard to do what she needs to do. She does her rehab, she does everything. I feel like if it was anyone else, you'd hear a little bit more complaining, but you don't see her complaining, we don't see her shed any tears. ... She just keeps coming. To see what she had done last year playing on a knee that's not 100 percent is very, very impressive."

Kerr waits for something else to challenge her, satisfy her and thrill her the way soccer does, something else to pursue when she does stop playing. She hasn't found it yet.

"I love to win," Kerr said. "That's the bottom line. And that's what pushes me all these times because I want to help this team win, and I want to win that national championship, get back to where we were, which I know is going to be a long process."

So she'll fasten the brace and play the next game and the game after that like it might be her last. Just in case it is.

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