ALBANY -- If The Herald held an annual awards ceremony for its high school players of the year, Deerfield's Lauren Fulford would have to limp her way up to the stage on crutches.
She's used to it by now.
The Deerfield senior improbably came back from an ACL tear she suffered last September during a club soccer match to join her teammates midseason after missing the first eight games. The Lady Knights were 4-3-1 without her in the lineup, and 8-1 after she returned as Fulford led DWS charging into the state tournament.
Then, after a Sweet 16 win against Trinity Christian, disaster struck again.
"I felt a pop, and I knew right away that I'd done it again," said Fulford, who tore her ACL the second time in the act of scoring a goal in that win. "I was absolutely devastated."
But Fulford returned the very next week -- on crutches and relegated to the sideline once again -- and helped mentor her young teammates in their Elite 8 game against No. 1 seed Holy Spirit Prep and into the Final Four, where DWS eventually lost to Stratford. But the impact she made, both on and off the field, will not soon be forgotten by anyone on Nottingham Way.
"What she did this year was incredible. I've never seen anything like it," said DWS coach Aly Joslin, a former pro player overseas. "To come back as strong -- if not stronger -- from when she first tore her ACL and make the difference she did, it was amazing. She was our go-to girl., a natural leader. When she came back, it gave everyone more belief."
Fulford isn't by any means a token selection as The Herald's 2011 Player of the Year for girls soccer based on the trials and tribulations she went through this past season.
No, she earned it.
The senior scored 22 goals and had eight assists in just 11 games played this year, good for second on the team behind Casey Kincheloe. But it may have been what she did April 19 against Southland -- only her second game back from her first ACL tear -- that set her apart from the rest. That's when she tied a school record with seven goals in a single game.
"She didn't score her first game back (in a loss to) Mount de Sales, and I think she was a little rusty," Joslin said. "Then the next game against Southland, she scored three by halftime, but she could've had six or seven, but was just rushing her shots. So I told her to stay relaxed and take her time, and she came back out and scored three more right away.
"I actually took her out at six (because we were up 13-0), but then a parent came up and said the record was seven, so I put her back in and she got another. She tried to get eight and break the record, but she fell just short."
Fulford credits Joslin for having faith in her to come back and lead the team, even in the wake of an injury that has sidelined -- and even ended the careers -- of countless athletes.
"Without the help of coach Joslin, I would have never made it through the rehabilitation process the first time. He was there for me from the beginning and he never had any doubt of me being out there on the soccer field again," she said. "The support he had for me inspired me to work hard and be a leader."
Joslin only wishes a college could've been the beneficiary of Fulford's talents.
"Scoring in soccer is the hardest thing to do -- and she makes it look easy. She's so knowledgeable about the game and is always in the right position to do so," he said. "It's just a shame her soccer career had to end like it did. Coming back from one ACL tear is improbable, but two is nearly impossible."
Fulford agrees, adding she won't pursue the sport at the next level when she enrolls in Georgia Southern next fall. But she leaves Albany without any regrets.
"Soccer has always been my favorite sport and I (turned more of my focus to soccer late in my career with the) hopes of playing in college one day, but I guess it's just one of those things that wasn't meant to be," she said. "And that's OK. I enjoyed my time playing and I'll never forget all my teammates and their support when I was hurt, and their encouragement to help me get back.
"All the days of rehab were frustrating and tough, but in the end, it was worth it for (the 11 games I was able to come back and play) and being able to make the Final Four. I'll always be able to look back on that and smile."