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Saager's long road to dominating in the America East

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VESTAL, NY -

Binghamton University Redshirt Junior Kayla Saager has taken the America East by storm.  In her first year on the field for BU she scored 11 goals (tied for 1st in the America East and tied for 22nd in NCAA Division I soccer), 7 assists (tops in the AEast, T-38 in the nation), 29 points (tops in the AEast, tied for 13th in the nation), 4 game-winning goals (tops in the AEast), 106 shots (tops in AEast and the nation), and 52 shots on goal (1st in the nation).  Her performance on the field made her the focus of every team's scouting report, but also earned her America East Striker of the Year and First Team All-Conference Honors.

But her road to being a dominant force in the America East has not been an easy one.  BU is Saager's third college and comes after several major surgeries.

"I've had three knee surgeries.  My first when I was in 8th grade, I was at a regional camp the day after Christmas," Saager says.  "I missed the ball kind of, stubbed my toe, my body turned and my leg stayed.  At first I was like, I think I can go back in, I was a bit dramatic there for a second but I'm fine, and the trainer was like no I think you tore your ACL."

While now ACL injuries at such a young age have, unfortunately, become almost common among young athletes, at the time Saager says it was almost unheard of.  ACL tears require surgery but because she was so young, her growth plates had not closed and her doctors feared surgery would give her a short leg.  So, she waited almost a full year before having the required surgery, but still played soccer in the meantime.  

"It was tough in such a crucial part of my recruiting process for college," Saager says.  "Once I got back, before my first mensicus surgery, I had to get my name back on people's lists.  I was doing everything I possibly could, and more.  Going to camps, reaching out to people that were helping me when I was on the regional teams."

At a national camp in Florida her sophomore year, all the girls on her regional team had already committed to colleges.  Saager was not.

"That definitely put pressure on me.  They're all committed and I should be where they were.  I just have to work that much harder and show myself harder at these camps.  It was just more motive because I knew I was behind in the process.  I just had to get back out there and make someone want to take a chance on me."

But during a trip to Russia her junior year of high school she pulled a muscle in her quadriceps.  A week after returning home, the injury bug struck again.

"I hurt my quad a little bit in Russia, and apparently that has something to do with weakening stuff around your knee," she says.  "So then I tore my meniscus for the first time right when I got back that week.  Had to undergo surgery again.  They took most of my meniscus.  Then when I was a freshman at NC State I tore my meniscus again."

Her freshman year at NC State, she led the Wolfpack in goals (5) and points (11) in 13 games and 12 starts.  At the end of the season she transferred to West Virginia with her soccer career in doubt.

"The last surgery really took a toll on my body.  My knee wasn't in the best shape anymore.  My doctor's didn't want me to play anymore.  Since I don't have a meniscus anymore they wanted me to get a meniscus transplant, which I can't play with, so of course that wasn't on the table," she says smiling.

Even so, she knows another surgery is likely in her future.  

"The doctors said you have to think of your future, like when you're going to have kids, just holding them, going upstairs.  Because, my doctor said I'm going to need a knee replacement by the time I'm 25.  I'll be 22 in March, so, I don't know."

In the meantime, she's going to play as hard as she can for as long as she can.

"Knock on wood, I'm not in pain.  So, it's hard to give up something just willingly when, for me, I know it's taking a toll on my body, but I'm not in excruciating pain.  If I was, that'd be a different story."

Recovering from the latest injury she was only able to play in three games for the Mountaineers, scoring two goals.  But she wasn't the same player she had been before.  A big part of that was the knee brace, which she could never again play without, a compromise she made with the doctors knowing that one more minor injury and her playing days are over.  Even so, don't expect her to shy away from a battle on the field.

"Having that huge target on your leg, girls will look at you and go after you.  I become so much slower.  It took things out of my game that I never expected to be gone.  I was completely different player.  It was hard to become realistic with myself that I couldn't play at that high level that I once could.  Realizing that was the hardest part of everything.  But still loving the game and wanting to play, I wanted to find a new home where I could still play, and maybe a lower level that I could still play and see the field, and that's when I found Binghamton."

When then-first year Bearcats Head Coach Neel Bhattacharjee found out Saager was looking to transfer, his eyes lit up with opportunity.

"She wanted to be closer to home, go to a great academic institution, and go to a place where she would have an impact for her last couple seasons of college soccer," Bhattacharjee says.  "That all led to us getting her release and once that happened we were able to talk more detail and it just ended up being a great fit for both sides."

After sitting out last year as per NCAA Transfer Rules, in her first year on the field Saager led the America East in all major offensive categories and helped lift the Bearcats to a share of the conference regular season title for the first time in 13 years.  So when Bhattacharjee says "great fit," he's perhaps understating that a bit.

"She's a natural goal scorer and that's what the game's about," Bhattacharjee says.  "Kayla gives you that presence.  In and around goals she's deadly.  She can release shots, set pieces, she gives you service.  With that she bring a lot of attention which opens things up for other people."

Growing up on Long Island in East Islip and being told she would never be good enough to play in the ACC to being told she may never play again after suffering so many injuries, it would have been easy to give up several times over.  Instead, she worked harder and not only played in the ACC, but also the Big 12, and then dominated the America East, silencing all the critics, and staying more positive and maturing faster than most young women her age.

"If this is something you really want, negative isn't going to help at all," Saager says.  "Don't get me wrong, there are days where I'm crying and stuff like that.  But my family and friends, and so many other people even now that look up to me and say I'm so happy and look at you now and where you were, and that makes it so much better."

As part of her performance leading to her Conference Striker of the Year Award she has helped change the culture of BU soccer, from three wins in 2015 to six in her redshirt year and Bhattacharjee's first on campus, to 11 wins and a regular season title this year.

"But to do that you have to be able to compete, you have to be able to score goals and Kayla has given that to us the whole year," Bhattacharjee says.  "You can't discount how big an impact she's had for us."

With the share of the regular season title, the Bearcats will host an America East semifinal game on Sunday at 1:00.  It's the first time they've done that since 2004.  Being co-regular season champions and losing the tiebreaker to New Hampshire though, gives BU the 2-seed.  Not bad for a team picked to finish 8th in the preseason coaches poll.

"We're definitely not done.  We're not satisfied that we're even the second seed," Saager says.  "We want to be number one and that's what we're going for."