Koerwitz Never Quits

by Kevin Ivany

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In sports, injuries are nearly inevitable.

A single errant step or awkward landing can change the course of a season for an athlete at any level and at any time.

For Jackie Koerwitz, then a true freshman on the University of Miami soccer team, a season-altering moment took place at one of the most inopportune times.

Spending the first weeks of training camp learning a new position, Koerwitz was ready to travel with her teammates to Edinburg, Texas, for the season opener on Aug. 22, 2019 against UTRGV.

But just two days before what would have been her first collegiate game, as the team wrapped up its final preseason drill at Cobb Stadium, Koerwitz jumped up to make a play on the ball and immediately knew something was wrong.

“It was crazy because I was learning a new position, center back, at the time. So, all preseason I really focused on learning center back and after our third scrimmage I felt like I finally had gotten the hang of it and 100 percent felt ready to go,” Koerwitz said. “We were finishing up a crossing and finishing drill and I went up to defend a cross…While I was in the air, I knew for sure it had dislocated because it was the same thing I felt in high school when I had it happen to my other knee. So, when I hit the floor, I was just so beyond frustrated.”

The defender’s intuition was precise, as she was later diagnosed with a right medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL) tear, just a couple years after suffering the same injury on her left leg.

As the Hurricanes flew to southern Texas, Koerwitz knew she had an uphill battle to climb in Coral Gables as doctors performed surgery on her right knee and informed her she would have to sit out the 2019 season.

Following a successful procedure, the defender hit the ground running with UM physical therapist Julia Rapicavoli and athletic trainer Karl Rennalls.

“Since Jackie had this injury before on her other leg, she knew what she was in for. I think that there was initial frustration to miss out on her freshman year, especially the day before the team left for Texas, but after that initial period she was doing as much as she could to keep herself in shape and did whatever she could do to be ready to go,” Rennalls said. “There were times Julia and I had to tell her to pull back because she was doing too much, and we told her just to trust us. With the pandemic, it changed some plans for her to play this summer but through multiple Zoom sessions doing rehab with Julia, we tried to get her as ready as possible. Even to this day, she is working her hardest to stay on the field.”

For Koerwitz, working with Rapicavoli and Rennalls throughout the process had a major impact on her recovery. So did knowing she was not going through it alone, as teammate Gudrun Haralz was also rehabbing from a season-ending injury last fall.

“Both Julia and Karl know how to read me like a book. They knew when I was in pain, when I had enough, when I was super frustrated and how to help calm me down,” Koerwitz said. “And it helped a lot, especially considering it was the beginning of the year and my team was gone a lot. That in itself was really hard, but it was super, super nice having Gudy around while she was also [rehabbing last season]. We were able to hang out a lot on the weekends and we would try and keep it as positive as we could and watch the games online when we could.”

Koerwitz’s diligent training did not go unnoticed, as Rapicavoli was impressed by the strides the first-year defender was making with every rehab session.

“Jackie and I spent a lot of weekends together last fall rehabbing,” Rapicavoli said. “Even though she was missing her team at the time, her passion for soccer and motivation to get back on the field kept her focused on rehab. She is easily one of the hardest working athletes I have ever worked with.”

Different from the first time she suffered the setback on the opposite leg, Koerwitz explained how the second time around was easier to deal with, as she knew what to expect and when things were going to be more painful. Also, being in a collegiate environment and having the opportunity to be with her teammates every day helped keep her motivated to show support from the sideline.

“As frustrating and hard as it was to sit there seven days a week not being able to participate in practices or matches, I kind of just realized that I had to make the most of my situation. I told myself, ‘Don’t waste an entire year, even though obviously you will have the eligibility. You need to learn. You need to help your freshmen teammates, your friends, make the transition,’” Koerwitz said. “So, I just tried to be the biggest cheerleader I could be for everyone. I screamed as loud as I could during all the home games I was able to attend.

“During practice, I tried to always keep a super positive attitude,” Koerwitz continued. “I did as much extra as I could before practices with [assistant coach] Jeremy [Williams]. Even in the fall when I couldn’t play, I went to film and just watched those playing in my position. I just tried to stay as engaged as possible.”

With the extra work put in to better her mind and body, head coach Sarah Barnes took notice of the young freshman’s determination to improve.

“Jackie approached her recovery like a professional. She did a great job of managing her mentality during the difficult times and through setbacks,” Barnes said. “Her work ethic and discipline with rehab was outstanding. She has gone above and beyond in preparing her body to be stronger than before and ready for competition, including continued training room upkeep to ensure that she does everything in her control to reduce further obstacles from playing throughout her career.

“Beyond that, Jackie learned a lot from watching the team, seeing the season unfold,” Barnes continued. “Her positive attitude and mentality to work and improve is a strong influence on our program. She has been a great example for our team.”

With the 2019 campaign in her rearview mirror, the Sacramento, Calif., native returned to campus following winter break ready for the spring season to get underway. However, the first month did not go as smoothly as she had hoped.

“The spring, for me, was honestly very frustrating in the sense I wasn’t feeling as stable and strong as I hoped I would. I was working super hard every day, but even though I obviously hurt my right knee this time, my left knee started flaring up some days and I got a little quad spasm on my right side,” Koerwitz said. “So, it was just very frustrating to not feel as good as I thought I should feel, but I just kept working hard, tried to keep my head up and focus on my touches. Also, I knew my teammates were super excited for me and they were so supportive, which was awesome.”

Just a month and a half into the spring season, Koerwitz and her teammates would separate again, this time due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.

“When I went home in March, I sort of took a break from the aspect of playing soccer, just so I could get 100 percent stability in my legs, as well as work toward getting back my running form and speed,” Koerwitz said. “I think that was honestly the smartest thing I could have done for myself. I went back and worked more on ladder training and hurdles to help improve my running and jumping. And after just a couple weeks, once I had that, I felt like I was really ready to get going again with soccer and get back into lifting. So, I just felt like that was a smart route to go, and I wish I would have suggested that when I first started up again in the spring. But, obviously, it ended up working out and I am really happy now.”

Like so many collegiate athletes, Koerwitz didn’t know what the future held for the 2020 fall season, but she knew she would be ready when a decision did arise.

Returning to campus in July for voluntary workouts, Koerwitz was thankful to be back with her teammates and back in an environment where everyone is pushing each other to get better.

“Going into August, when we started training with the coaching staff, it was just so rewarding and I remember talking to Jeremy in the beginning and he said something along the lines of, ‘You put in the work, now you just get to show it off.’ And to hear that from him was just super, super motivating and exciting,” Koerwitz said. “Since then, I have taken that and thought, ‘He is so right, last year at this point I would have been on crutches with a brace. But now I am out here killing it with my best friends on the field.’”

Now, 394 days removed from an MPFL tear, Koerwitz took the pitch in the season opener against Clemson Saturday night.

The non-conference tilt was the redshirt freshman’s first collegiate match and her hard work paid off, as she earned the start at the central midfield position. The moment was surreal for Koerwitz, Barnes and Rennalls, who knew all the effort put into getting to that moment.

“Oh my gosh, that feeling was awesome. There were definitely nerves, not that I was going to get hurt, but they were healthy, good nerves where I was at the point like, ‘Alright, just use this energy and motivation.’ And it was just so nice to be playing someone that wasn’t on our team because I had only been playing people on our team for 13 months. So, to get a new opponent and experience was great,” Koerwitz said. “[head] Coach [Sarah Barnes] brought it up prior to the game when we were doing our pre-match talk and was just like, ‘As a team we haven’t played in over 200 days, but Jackie, Lexi [Castellano-Mugica] and Gudrun haven’t played for over 13 months, so you guys should be really excited.’ To have her remind the team and myself was just super nice as well.”

After sharing those remarks with the team, Barnes was proud to see Koerwitz enter the starting lineup against the Tigers.

“You’re always pulling for your players. I want the best for them, I want to see them thrive at this level,” Barnes said. “Watching Jackie take the field was a great moment. She has waited a long time for the opportunity and I’m excited for her continued growth this season and beyond.”

“On Saturday it was like a proud ‘dad’ moment and it’s something as an athletic trainer we always take pride in preparing our athletes to return to their sport,” Rennalls said. “There are always times that our athletes want to rush just to get back, but Julia and I are perfectionists and we want to know the product we are putting on the field will be successful. I am just happy to have her back doing what she loves and look forward to all she will be able to provide us on the field.”

Rapicovali echoed Rennalls remarks, saying, “It makes everything worth it; it is why I have the best job in the world. Having season-ending injuries and having to rehab is very hard work. I am so proud of Jackie and can’t wait to watch her out there.”

Everyone will get the chance to watch her on the field Thursday night, as Koerwitz and her teammates open the ACC season at Cobb Stadium against Louisville at 7 p.m. The match will be streamed live on ACC Network Extra and broadcast on WVUM 90.5 FM.

The contest with the Cardinals will be the first of an eight-match conference slate. With all the uncertainties this summer, the Hurricanes are thankful for the opportunity to take the pitch again as a team.

“I just think that we are all feeling super blessed to have the opportunity to play, since so many others do not. So, we are just going to do everything we can to compete every game and win every game that we can and hopefully get a spot in the ACC tournament,” Koerwitz said. “That is the goal for everyone on our team. It is going to be challenging, but if we just keep improving, keep competing, I know we can do it.”