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UNC women's soccer midfielder back in action after injuries

Photo: UNC women's soccer midfielder back in action after injuries (Kevin Minogue)

Coach Anson Dorrance refers to Ali Hawkins as one of the greatest leaders in the history of UNC women’s soccer, a three-year captain with the power to command a room when she speaks.

So when she stood before her teammates and coaches to deliver her last words as a Tar Heel, everyone tuned in.

“I wish,” Hawkins told the team, “that for one day, Maria could play pain-free.”

Hawkins’ words came as part of the senior will ceremony, a tradition in the UNC women’s soccer program during which the team’s seniors bequeath a figurative item or piece of advice to a younger member of the team.

As in most years, the 2010 wills were primarily laced with humor, but for Hawkins, the will represented an opportunity to bolster a younger teammate’s strength.

And on Aug. 19, 2011, Hawkins got her wish.

On that day, in UNC’s season opener, there was no stabbing sensation knifing at Maria Lubrano’s left foot, no grinding agony preventing her left hip from mustering a full stride.

And roughly a minute and a half into her first competitive soccer game since 2009, a rebound fell at Lubrano’s feet 10 yards from goal.

With the deft touch of her left foot and the throttling power of her hip, she drove the ball into the back of the goal.

“I honestly felt like God placed the ball right in front of me because it literally stopped two feet away and was there with no one around for my left foot,” Lubrano said. “It was the biggest encouragement I could ask for.”

The courage to overcome a pair of debilitating injuries has left Lubrano with an even greater zest for the game than before, a passion that has fueled her resurrection as a critical piece of the No. 10 Tar Heels.

Injury strikes

As a freshman in 2007, Lubrano appeared in less than half of UNC’s games. But that did not prevent her from displaying plenty of moxie.

In the ACC tournament semifinal against No. 7 Virginia, Dorrance chose Lubrano as one of his five shooters in the game’s decisive penalty shootout. Though she had not played all game, Lubrano came in off the bench and buried the winning kick.

Yet it was a light-hearted pickup game near her home in High Point during spring break that year that first caused the shooting pain in the bottom of Lubrano’s left foot.

After limping off the field, Lubrano consulted with team athletic trainer Nicole Fava, who diagnosed the condition as plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the connective tissue in the bottom of the foot that is common among frequent runners.

But after months of treatment and a shuffle of boots and casts throughout the summer, the pain increased to the point where she could no longer practice. By the end of the summer, the slightest touch to Lubrano’s lower foot caused a flare of anguish.

“It’s pinpoint,” Lubrano said, describing the pain. “Like a needle is going through your bone. It’s excruciating.”

Lubrano approached Dorrance to request a redshirt for the 2008 season, unsure when she would be able to return.

More tests that fall revealed the correct diagnosis: a pinched nerve in Lubrano’s heel, brought on by overexpansion of muscle tissue in the foot. Though remedied by surgery, the injured Lubrano could only watch as the Tar Heels won the 2008 NCAA National Championship.

Signs of hope

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Before being cleared to play for UNC women’s soccer each season, each player on the roster must pass a summer fitness test, known to players as “10 120s.”

Players must run the full length of a soccer field — 120 yards — in 18 seconds. They then must return within 30 seconds to the starting line, where they are given a 30-second break.

Repeat successfully nine more times, and you’re on the team.

Knowing Maria would need some extra help to pass her fitness test prior to the 2009 season, her parents approached their son Antonio, who Maria describes as a “fitness guru,” with a deal: if Maria passed her fitness test, they would reward him with a trip to Italy.

After a summer of grueling workouts, Maria earned her spot on the team.

Beginning the year as a reserve, an injury to starting midfielder Nikki Washington thrust Lubrano into a starting role, where she played in all 27 games, earned the team’s Most Improved Player award and helped UNC to its second consecutive NCAA title.

But as the season wore on, Lubrano began noticing a deepening pain in her upper left thigh.

Believing it to be a strained quadriceps muscle, Lubrano followed the standard treatment procedures, but the soreness remained.

With the season winding down, Fava helped limit Lubrano’s pain during games with an electric muscle stimulation, or stim machine, which sends electric pulses through muscle via several probes, releasing endorphins that reduce pain for hours afterward.

But treatments couldn’t eliminate Lubrano’s soreness, and in the national title game victory against Stanford, she could no longer run.

Though she let the muscle rest during winter break that year and during much of the spring semester, she still could not sprint by the time the team’s spring drills began.

An MRI then revealed a tear in Lubrano’s acetabular labrum, which connects the femur, or leg bone, to the hip joint.

Lubrano underwent surgery to clean out the joint and received injections to increase blood flow to the area, which enabled her to jog and run with reduced pain. However, the treatments left her weak and unable to drive through the ball with any kind of force.

With no timetable for a return to the field, Lubrano received a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA, granting her an additional year of eligibility.

But Lubrano remained unsure if she would ever be able to use it.

During the 2010 season, though, Dana Jones, mother of senior forward Courtney Jones, suggested that Lubrano see Dr. Marc Philippon, a Colorado surgeon who had successfully mended both hips of the Jones’ family friend.

Though Lubrano’s hip injury had been a persistent nuisance, she didn’t believe it to be particularly devastating until she went to Philippon’s office for evaluation. After sizing her up for just one minute, he delivered a gut punch.

“You don’t have a labrum anymore,” Philippon said.

The injury required a more complicated surgery than the first, one that would require a graft from her illiotibial band.

Though nervous about another procedure, Lubrano took comfort in signs from what she believes was a higher power at work.

First, a sudden cancellation allowed Philippon to operate on Lubrano the day after her consultation, in time for her to recover for the next season.

Then, as she stood in Philippon’s office during her consultation, she spotted a jersey signed by one of the surgeon’s many famous patients, Alessandro del Piero — the Italian soccer star long idolized by the Lubrano family.

Comforted by those signs, Lubrano went under the knife in February 2011, but the procedure left her in agony for days afterward.
Yet this season, a fully-recovered Lubrano has played in all 11 UNC games with six starts, a pair of goals and an assist as a integral piece of the Tar Heel offense.

Now, when recalling Hawkins’ speech, Lubrano begins to well up.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” she says. “But I am playing pain-free.”

A refreshing return

Today, the skills that made Lubrano a top target out of high school have resurfaced, something that is still remarkable to Dorrance.

“When you’re injured, you lose all kinds of things in our game,” he said. “Not just strength, but all the different elements that make soccer players excel. Getting all those things back — all the skills — just takes a huge amount of time.”

Yet the biggest sign of a successful recovery, this one more subtle, was on display in a recent matchup with N.C. State.

As Lubrano clattered and slid into opponents for loose balls in that game, a potential recurrence of her injuries was clearly out of mind.

“I’m able to push my body to the furthest limit right now,” Lubrano said. “That’s what I want to do because I wasn’t able to for so long.”

With UNC ahead 2-1 late in the game, Lubrano corralled a ball at the top of the penalty area, tapped it onto her left foot and unleashed a majestic strike with the power of her left hip.

Like a set of lungs, the crowd audibly inhaled as the ball left her foot, then erupted as it dipped into the top left corner of the net.

After the game, with the revival of her physical tools fully evidenced, it was clear Lubrano’s confidence had returned as well.

“Since surgery, I feel like they might have done something in (my leg) that helped it,” Lubrano said. “I can do things that I used to not be able to do.”

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