By Cassidy Thornburg
JOE BEAN STADIUM — On Saturday, Nov. 2, junior center-midfielder Carney Blake kick-started the Thunder’s momentum coming out of halftime with a goal from the top of the box that put the Thunder up 3-0 over North Park University. The Thunder went on to shutout the Vikings 9-0 and earn the program’s 21st CCIW Championship with an undefeated conference record (8-0). Blake’s goal Saturday night marked her fourth of the season, a feat for anyone, but especially for someone who was in a wheelchair just six months before.
“Hip arthroscopy,” women’s head soccer trainer Mark Demchak said as he stretched Blake out on the training table after a practice session. That was the name of the surgery Blake had after tearing her labrum last semester — the soft cartilage that surrounds the hip socket. “It was more of a timing thing,” Demchak said. “She tore both sides, so she would have needed to have both done eventually, they just decided to fix them at the same time — fairly typical.”
“We joke about this in the training room, but I had never heard of tearing your labrum before I got here. Now it seems like a lot of athletes deal with overuse injuries,” Blake said. “We are at that point as college athletes where we’ve run or played soccer for a long time, so our bodies are starting to face these bigger injuries.”
Blake played the full season last year, helping the women’s soccer team advance to the sectional round of the NCAA tournament before they were eliminated. The pain mounted in the off-season when Blake experienced two bizarre incidents that suggested something was wrong.
“The first time, I couldn’t move my left leg without incredibly sharp pain,” Blake said. “The second time, I was stranded outside Saga on the benches and I literally couldn’t move, so Public Safety had to bring me a wheelchair.”
After being wheeled back to her MacEvans dorm room that freezing February day, Blake lay on her couch for days. Trainers convinced her to get an MRI taken of her hips, but Blake wasn’t convinced the doctors would find anything major.
Unfortunately for Blake, the MRI confirmed that she would need surgery in both of her hips if she wanted to be able to play soccer again, or even function on a daily basis. It was important that she got the surgery done as soon as possible so she would have enough time to recover before the 2019 season.
“The doctors were saying that I couldn’t get the surgery done until mid-April which would push my return to soccer until mid-October,” Blake said. But the same doctor in Cleveland, near her hometown, who had told her he wouldn’t be able to schedule her surgery for a couple months, called with an opening.
The surgery took place a day later. Blake attributed the way the appointment fell into her lap as God at work.
After her surgery, Blake leaned on those around her for support, though it wasn’t easy to ask for help.
“The first couple of weeks took humility, being in a wheelchair, asking people for help. I like to do everything for myself,” Blake said, laughing. “Which is probably a downfall, but being in a wheelchair forced me to ask people, even people I didn’t know, for stuff that I didn’t want to ask for.”
Blake especially appreciated the support of her mother. “My mom always sees the worst side of it,” she said. “When I first found out, I called her crying, upset about the whole situation. It was hard because she can’t be in Wheaton all spring, so she really didn’t see any of the positives, and when I called her, I felt bad because I would usually complain.”
Blake was at home in Ohio after her surgery for four days before returning to Wheaton where she found comfort in a teammate facing the same adversity.
“Another teammate of mine, Izzy McNally, was going through the same thing, but two weeks before me. She showed me the ropes once I eventually got surgery.”
Two weeks after surgery, Blake was more than ready to get out of the wheelchair. “Everyone looks at you,” she said. “I know some people around Wheaton, but people I had never met were asking me about being in a wheelchair, which is nice I guess, but odd at times.”
Even after getting out of the wheelchair, it took months of rest and recovery before Blake was able to work out. By then she was stir-crazy.
“Sitting on the couch for long periods of time is weird,” Blake said. “For any athlete, right? We’re not used to sitting, so I was ready to be able to move my legs a little bit.”
Blake didn’t touch a soccer ball until the end of June, and it wasn’t until July that she could start running again. “That was hard,” Blake said. “Having a summer where you aren’t able to do everything you want to do, like walking far distances. I had to learn to be totally okay with that, knowing that I am getting better and that I will be better.”
This period of waiting raised questions about the fall season. “I can barely run — how am I going to play soccer?” Blake asked herself. “I got to play a lot of minutes my freshman and sophomore years, so am I going to be able to play as much as I used to? Am I going to be in pain while playing? I was unsure about everything.”
Two days before she returned to Wheaton this fall, Blake was cleared to play soccer again. But she still had to re-adjust to playing soccer the team again.
Blake made her debut Sept. 6 in, of all places, Ada, Ohio — not far from her hometown. Even though she was in for just a couple of minutes, Blake relished playing in front of her parents.
From there, Blake’s season took off. The defensive midfielder has since started every game for the Thunder, scored four goals and made an assist.
Coach Pete Felske describes Blake as a “seasoned veteran” and a “mainstay in the midfield” for the Thunder the last couple of years. When asked what are some of her strengths are, Coach Felske responded, “Carney is a solid ball-winner and a great distributor.”
The Wheaton Women’s Soccer team tied Augustana in the CCIW Tournament Semifinal last Wednesday. After a prolonged shootout, the Vikings out-performed the Thunder to advance to the Tournament final. The Thunder are down but likely not out. It is highly probable that the Thunder will secure an at-large selection to the upcoming NCAA Division III Women’s Soccer Tournament. Bids will be announced Monday, Nov. 11 at 12:00 p.m. (CST) on NCAA.com.
“I’m so excited I get to play, even if it just means passing,” Blake said. “By the end of the season, as an athlete, you have your days where, and I don’t know if people would admit this, but you just don’t want to do it anymore. It takes a ton of time, and that starts to wear on you, but it’s been a gift being able to come in with a renewed faithfulness and joy of sports.”