It’s another school night and instead of preparing for a quiz or finishing your homework, you are out on the soccer field for yet another game.
The weather had consisted of rain all week and the field feels exceptionally muddy, but you don’t let it deter you.
You proudly fix your captains’ armband before the game and take your position centerfield: Now the game has begun.
Nothing feels out of the ordinary.
You go for a shot planting your foot to face the goal…and then it happens. You slip in the mud, but your cleats catch the ground and your knee along with your entire body falling to the side in an abrupt shift in motion.
“I tore my ACL,” senior Danielle Hitchens said.
The scene depicted to you was girls soccer captain Danielle Hitchens night on January 16. The soccer season had recently begun less than a month ago.
“When it first happened, I was completely devastated. I knew it wasn’t just a minor injury because I felt a pop,” Hitchens said. “It was more heartbreaking than physical pain. My dad was completely speechless and my mom was overwhelmed with heartache for me.”
Not only is Hitchens sidelined from soccer for the rest of her senior year, but her swimming career has also come to an end at a pivotal point in the competition season.
“The injury happened the week before district championships. All six relays were sent to regionals, which hasn’t happened in a long time. I was disappointed because I wanted to be there with the team and help contribute. I wanted to finish out my four years of being on the swim team,” Hitchens said.
For those that are unfamiliar with the brevity of ACL injuries, it’s described by the Mayo Clinic as “a tear or sprain of the anterior cruciate and is most common in sports with sudden stops or changes in direction.” The recovery time from surgery ranges from four to nine months.
“For my surgery, I’m having my ACL completely replaced, because my surgeon has seen better results. The surgeons are taking part of my quad and putting it in to replace my ACL. My surgery is set for February 13,” Hitchens said.
While these types of injuries are common within the sport, the timing and recovery of this injury has completely shifted Hitchens world.
To paint a better picture, we have to go back to where it all started.
“I have been playing soccer since before I can even remember,” Hitchens said. “I was officially on a team when I was about 4. I started to really love soccer when I was around 8 years old. I fell in love with the rush of beating players, running down the field toward the goalie, and I became addicted to the exhilarating feeling of scoring.
This would quickly serve to be true, especially entering her high school years. While she wasn’t captain yet, she had a natural presence among her teammates and on the field.
“I have always been outgoing and I’ve never been afraid to speak up, which has translated well into the team environment because I have been playing soccer for so long. I also have a passion for keeping everyone motivated and working hard so we can continue to improve every day,” Hitchens said.
In her wait for the captain position, Hitchens welcomed swimming into her life. With her weekends consisting of soccer tournaments in San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas. Being on both the swim and soccer team, there was no such thing as a “regular day”.
“A typical day at school I would wake up for swim practice at 6:30, go to school, stay for high school soccer until 5, and then go to club practice until 8:30, and start all over again. Most people feel like they could never do that, but that was what I loved to do. It’s who I am, It’s a part of me,” Hitchens said.
Time passed and Hitchens flowed into her development. Entering her junior year she felt confident in assuming a bigger role on the soccer team.
This didn’t go according to plan.
“To become captain of the soccer team was definitely a rocky road filled with deep potholes. The old coach had his own distinct way of how the team should be playing and that went against everything I have ever learned about the game of soccer,” Hitchens said. “In turn, we weren’t reading the same page and he wanted someone who could easily align with his views. In his eyes, I wasn’t the best fit to execute his game plan.”
But she didn’t let that deter her. She took on the role of captain of the swim team and still devoted her time to soccer, whether at school or club practice. Because of this, colleges began to take notice.
“I have had well over thirty schools reach out to me with extreme interest in joining their program. I could have played division 1 out of state or division 2 and below in Texas. For financial reasons and being family-oriented, I decided I wanted to stay in the state of Texas for college. Then, last summer, the University of North Texas expressed great interest in me and I would basically be a walk-on there,” Hitchens said
With The University of North Texas being a leading choice heading into her senior season, there were more changes coming her way.
The old coach was replaced with Coach Mulkey. Hitchens not only felt excited about the new season but felt at ease following the struggles of the previous seasons.
“Last year was really tough. We faced a lot of adversity and caught the short end of the straw. Just like Mulkey instilled in us, we cannot change the past but the only thing we can do is work hard every day for a better future,” Hitchens said. “With our new coaching staff, I was able to be comfortable, flamboyant and just all around be myself.”
Alongside a new coaching staff, she had a new title: Hitchens was finally captain.
“My teammates wound up voting me into the position this year and that really warms my heart because it shows they have genuine trust for me that I can guide and represent them on and off the field,” Hitchens said. “In middle school, I knew I wanted to someday be the captain of a high school team so when I finally wore the captain armband, it was surreal.”
Her senior year was progressing well and alongside her Division 1 prospect title, Hitchens was already receiving awards.
“In the NISD showcase, three days before my injury, I was named in the all-tournament team. I had also received the Max Preps Player of the Game vs John F. Kennedy. We were nine games into the season and I had nine goals,” Hitchens said.
All of these events in her life leading to this current situation would be challenging for anyone to grasp. After dealing with the initial realities, Hitchen mapped out the next phases and approached life with a positive perspective.
“Since my injury, I have definitely found peace with it,” Hitchens said. “My next step is to conquer physical therapy. From there, I’ll build back up to playing and come back better than ever and hopefully play in college in my sophomore year. I genuinely want to see how far I can make it with soccer, so if the opportunity of going pro ever presents itself, then I definitely will take it.”
For any other senior athletes or young athletes who are going through something similar, Hitchens provides her fresh perspective.
“My best advice is don’t let your injury be an excuse for what’s holding you back. Don’t let it define who you are because one set back shouldn’t define a whole career. Setbacks are the foundation for major comebacks,” Hitchens said.
This story was originally published on The Fuel on February 5, 2020.