It took being forced off the field for MaKayla Woods to realize how much she cherishes soccer.
Two years ago, the University of Washington commit had everything going for her in the sport. College coaches were calling. Soccer dominated her life. She was having a blast.
Then an injury during her sophomore season forced her to take a step back, become a student of the game — and in the classroom.
“Being away from it for that long and being away from those girls on the field was so hard for me,” Woods said. “I found out what I really wanted (by) not playing soccer, so it was a blessing and a curse.”
Now two years and a career-altering injury later, Woods leads the Titans with a renewed sense of appreciation for the game.
“It’s been almost like a godsend for her, she’s really got balance in her life,” Union soccer coach Kelcey Burris said. “She’s grown up as a person and as a student, and ultimately as a player. But growing as a student and as a person was the most important thing out of that.”
The senior forward has scored a handsome share of goals for Union (4-1), but none has etched itself in her memory quite like the one that resulted in her injury two years ago.
Charging forward on an open breakaway in the opening minutes of the game, she struck the ball, watched it sail into the back of the net, but heard a “pop” as she reconnected her foot with the turf. Woods’ teammates surrounded her in jubilee, but her face said that something was wrong.
Woods had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
Initially, she was distraught. Watching from the sidelines proved to be a difficult task.
“(Soccer) is all I’ve done since I was three years old,” she said. “I’ve had to really be patient with everything. … You can’t just rush into things right away.”
Between playing club and high school soccer, much of her life revolved around sports. In addition to soccer, Woods also competed on Union’s track team and was part of the 4A state meet record-setting 4×200 and 4×400 relays last season. Her father, Lamont Woods, played defensive back and ran track at University of Oregon in the early 90s.
No injury is timely, but for Woods, hers came during the peak recruiting window. She sported an offer from Oregon prior to the injury, but feared schools would lose interest.
Not the case, she learned. Woods fielded offers from Oregon State, University of Portland and Washington after the ACL tear. She chose UW. Huskies coach Lesle Gallimore offered encouraging words, and more importantly, an offer Woods didn’t refuse.
“(Gallimore) was like ‘you know what, this happens a lot,'” Woods said. “One of the girls in my recruiting class tore her ACL. They were like, ‘it’s better now than down the road because it’s so common in girls soccer.'”
While her collegiate plans were secure, she still had to adjust to life without sports. That proved to be a challenge for Woods.
The recovery process brought her competitive side out. Not just on the field.
Burris, who has been her teacher along with coach since she was a freshman, saw improvement in her grades, too.
“Just seeing her grow academically and then growing as a person from a young teenager to a young woman now, you’re starting to see that benefit now,” Burris said.
As her physical therapy progressed, Woods followed each step of the rehab and felt her knee regaining strength. Once her conditioning started to build, she wanted to be back on the field, though she wasn’t fully ready. The team took their time with her recovery.
Once she was cleared midway through her junior season, she played short stints. Burris would jokingly quip “I don’t trust the devil inside you,” to encourage she take her recovery one step at a time.
“She had to control her expectations,” Burris said. “For me, I think some kids rush back way too early. It just wasn’t the time for her.”
Burris slowly worked her back into the lineup, playing her short stints. An excited Woods scored four goals in three games at the end of the season.
“I was so proud of myself after I came back,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Through the recovery, Burris noticed Woods grow leaps and bounds.
“Sometimes especially with the soccer kids, they do soccer all the time,” Burris said. “She found the weight room, she found fitness, she’s capable of being a person that’s not solely known as a soccer player, but as MaKayla Woods the person.”
She’s on track to graduate early from Union and enroll at UW this spring. In order to do so, she needed to plan ahead with her course schedule, to which she credited her dad, who was formerly a counselor at Union and now an assistant principal at Heritage.
Makayla Woods has had a hand in Union’s hot start to the 2017 season. She’s scored three goals and three assists through five games approaching a match Saturday against Ridgefield.
Her growth as a person, Burris says, has been most noticeable with this year’s team.
“She’s a great kid,” he said. “It’s not her as a player, it’s more her as a person. She’s able to lift people up both on and off the field.”