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'Wounded warriors': Field hockey athletes recover from injury together

Redshirt junior forward Meredith Shoulder (2) gains possession of the ball against Syracuse on Oct. 16, 2020 in Karen Shelton Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. UNC beat Syracuse 1-0.

Coming home from spending another game on the sidelines, Meredith Sholder came to a realization: she would never take the field with the Tar Heels’ senior class again. She had spent the whole of her junior season last year with the UNC field hockey team out with a foot injury.

Sholder said that realization really took a toll on her when one of her teammates returned home to the Netherlands following graduation.

Cassie Sumfest, who also lives with Sholder, tore her ACL the spring before the start of the 2019 season, and she admitted feeling the same way. In that moment, Sholder and Sumfest realized how grateful they were that they had each other to go through recovery with.

“Being able to understand each other was super special because I knew that everything she said was 100 percent genuine, and 100 percent valid,” Sholder said.

Sholder and Sumfest were injured prior to UNC's undefeated national championship run in 2019. They were both from Pennsylvania and knew each other during high school through Junior National teams. They lived together at UNC throughout their shared injuries, recoveries and triumphs. Now both are back and ready for action during the shortened 2020 season. 

Both women were members of the 2018 undefeated National Championship season their sophomore years. In the spring of 2019, Sumfest tore her ACL when she planted to shift directions with the ball. She was able to walk off the field and hoped the injury wasn’t serious as she went into the training room for testing.

“I went into a squat, like I did a squat jump,” Sumfest said. “And as I came back down, my knee just gave out. So after that I knew.”

For Sholder, she went into the 2019 season healthy, feeling like she was in better shape than ever before.

“I was really excited," Sholder said. "But yeah, unfortunately, it was the second day of preseason, and I was going to cut for a ball and I twisted my ankle and fell."

X-rays revealed that she fractured her fifth metatarsal, a long bone on the outside of the foot. At first, there was still some possibility of her returning at the end of the season, but her recovery regressed and she had to return to crutches. Sholder then had to accept the fact she would miss the entire season. 

UNC's head athletic trainer, Scott Oliaro, said when Sholder’s setback happened, Sumfest gave her comfort and encouragement.

“I think that helped Meredith out, knowing that there was somebody else that was in her boat and that was going to be doing the same thing she was,” Oliaro said. “She wasn't alone in going through it, which I think was helpful.”

'The wounded warriors'

Sumfest and Sholder would go together to Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center, where they got treated. Oliaro said they would do mostly injury-specific recovery work but would be with each other as they did their exercises.

UNC field hockey head coach Karen Shelton said during team practices, the two would be off on their own, working together on their respective recoveries. She said that time seemed to bring them closer.

"You know, they just worked together," Shelton said. "Some things they could do together, some things they couldn't, but I think they handled it very well." 

Sholder said there were times when the team would win a game and she would feel happy for the team in the moment, but later shared with Sumfest that she wished she could have been a bigger part of the win. Sharing concerns like this with each other was a major part of their recovery process. 

"No one will be able to understand until they are injured," Sholder said. "It was like we were fortunate enough that we were injured at the same time." 

Ali Rushton, a senior in 2019, also tore her ACL and was out for the season alongside Sumfest and Sholder. She said the three of them sat together in the same place every game as a superstition.

“We were the three injured people, so we called ourselves the wounded warriors,” Sholder said. “So for every game, we would sit on the sideline or we’d stand on the sideline, and we would make it a goal to be as loud as possible.”

'They were certainly ready'

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Even though Sumfest and Sholder recovered and were ready to play by spring, COVID-19 hit and any games they could have played in were canceled. 

“That had to be frustrating for them because they waited so long,” Oliaro said. “But to their credit, they just kept improving from the middle of March until the summer, and when they got back they were certainly ready to play and participate.”

In the pair's first game back against Wake Forest, Sumfest and Sholder both scored goals to contribute to the team’s 3-1 win. 

“When you have something that you love taken away, you tend to come back with a renewed attitude about it and you tend to appreciate the little things even more,” Shelton said. “And so they have come back. They've been terrific both contributing largely to our success this fall.”

Sumfest said she was grateful to be able to play in the 2020 season after spending so much time off the field. She was a little nervous to return, but once she stepped out onto the field and the match started, her nerves disappeared and muscle memory took over. Sholder said she felt lots of support when she returned and was also thankful to be able to step on the field again.

“I'm really happy with where I am right now, and a year ago today I probably wouldn't have thought that,” Sholder said.

Rushton said the 2019 season was different without Sholder and Sumfest, but they were perfect examples of becoming stronger because of their injury. She said UNC field hockey wouldn’t be where it is today without them.  

“I think with both Meredith and Cassie this year, they have a 100 percent chance of winning the National Championship again,” Rushton said.


@dthsports |