Alek Kleis never got a chance to help the De Pere girls soccer team get to state last season.
Nobody will ever know if the Redbirds would have earned a trip to Milwaukee had Kleis not torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during a regional championship against West De Pere, a game in which she scored four of her team’s six goals.
De Pere ended up losing to Cedarburg in a WIAA Division 2 sectional title game one week later, and the way it all went down is something De Pere coach Andy Steger has regretted at times.
Kleis was injured in the final 11 minutes against West De Pere, moments after scoring her final goal in a game De Pere was comfortably ahead in.
She had checked back in only after another forward had drawn a card and was required to come out.
“It just so happened she was the one standing right in front of me, like she always is,” Steger said. “That’s one of the things about her being a competitor. Alek is a competitor, and she wants to compete.
“Yeah, you look back on it and it’s like, ‘God, I should have found somebody else, but in the moment when you have to sub a forward out and she’s right there … I definitely kicked myself. Why the hell did I put her back in?”
Steger also knows it’s easy to say that in hindsight, although if a similar situation happens again this season, he will have Kleis stand next to him while somebody else goes in.
After nine months of at times grueling rehabilitation, Kleis has one more opportunity to help her team reach State.
It’s still early, but the senior forward appears to be as dominant as she was before her injury.
The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh recruit scored her first goal and added two assists in her second game back against Green Bay Preble, and entering Friday she had four goals and three assists in just six games.
She is coming off a decorated junior season in which she finished in the top 10 in the state with 25 goals while being named the offensive player of the year in the Fox River Classic Conference and a “best of the rest” all-state selection by the Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association.
Kleis has been eased back into action, and her knee at times has gotten a bit swollen by the end of a game. But she doesn’t feel limited, and despite the injury being in the back of her mind during a season opener against the same Phantoms team she got injured against, she hasn’t thought about it much since.
“I think I’m surprised about how well I’m doing, but the thing with me is that I know that in order for us to get back to state, I can’t be worried about my injury or getting another injury,” Kleis said. “So, I just really put everything into it.”
Kleis had surgery June 24. She looks back at the nine months of rehab and can’t believe how quickly it all went by, but that wasn’t the way it felt while she was going through it.
There were good days, of course, but a lot of others in which nothing felt right. It was enough to make her feel like quitting at times.
“I definitely got down on myself,” said Kleis, who is one of three captains for De Pere. “There were bumps in the road, like when my patellar tendon was painful. When I was exercising, I would just be like, ‘I don’t want to do this. This is so much work. This is so much pain.’
“But then I thought about what the outcome would be after I did all this work, and it made me push through it.”
With Kleis back, De Pere is positioned to be a contender for another FRCC championship after winning at least a share each of the last four seasons.
The Redbirds also have returned all-conference performers in senior goaltender Kelly Kent, senior defender Danyell Steger and sophomore defender Lizzie Miller, while sophomore midfielder Anna Boyd has scored a team-high six goals.
“We have a very difficult road in front of us,” Steger said. “We are now back in Division 1, so having the likes of Kimberly, Preble, the Appleton schools, Bay Port, and then on top of it if you get out of that and get to a sectional championship, then you run into D.C. Everest or Eau Claire Memorial or Hudson.
“We know we have a big task in front of us. We are focused on getting better each game.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @scottvenci.