Break on through (to the other side)

Katie Benz was in the midst of a breakout senior year for the Cal women’s soccer team when she was sidelined with a broken leg. Now she is leading the team from the sideline.

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Emma Lantos/Senior Staff

As Katie Benz sits on the bench and watches her teammates play in the last home match against Utah, all she can notice is how slow the time is moving on the clock.

Every second seems to stretch out longer than the last one, every pass slower than the previous. Her mind is playing games with her. The urge to play soccer on one leg builds and builds inside her mind until she can’t take it anymore.

Benz hobbles her way to the massage table just behind the bench, putting as little weight as possible on her broken leg. The trainer, knowing his cue, walks over to Benz and starts the rehab session in the middle of the match.

“If I have other things to distract me as I pay attention to the games, it helps me not go crazy,” Benz says. “I asked the trainer what would happen if I ran onto the field right now in this condition.”

It’s been almost a month since the Santa Clara match when she sustained her season-ending leg injury. In the 62nd minute of that fateful contest, Benz and a Santa Clara player were in pursuit of a loose ball. As she tried to clear the ball away from Benz, she whiffed the ball and struck Benz in the tibia, shattering the bone in two and resonating a noise so loud that her parents in the stands heard the bone snap.

“You don’t think someone could kick a ball hard enough to break a bone,” Benz says.

Before the injury, Benz was enjoying the best season of her career.

After scoring only three goals in her first three years in Berkeley, she scored 10 goals in the first 10 matches of the season, at one point leading all goal-related statistics in the Pac-12. Now 19 contests into the season, Benz is third in the conference in goals scored and still first in goals per game.

Once the go-to scorer for Cal this season, Benz has now embraced another role — the go-to teammate. She attends all the practices and matches, making herself present to any teammate who needs advice or simply a friend to talk to. She even pays for her own plane tickets whenever the teams travels on the road. Benz is trying to send a message to her teammates that it is not only about playing time or the accolades.

“I feel like they can see that it’s not just playing but rather about the team,” Benz says. “I would expect them to expect me to be at practices and at games.”

After 15 minutes of rehab, the urge subsides and Benz is able to focus on the game again. She hobbles back to her seat on the bench.

In the Benz family, pessimism has no place anywhere in the house.

For over the past two decades, Bob and Rena Benz enforced a dinner table custom in which each member of the family goes around and says five positive stories that occurred that day.

“I am known to be an eternal optimist,” Bob Benz says. “The dinner table idea was an interesting idea. But after a while, I didn’t have to say anything because the kids were only talking about positive things.”

It was this upbringing that guided Katie Benz’s through the roughest time in her Cal career.

Benz is an ardent believer that everything happens for a reason and ultimately something good will happen out of it. To her, no bad situation is as bad as it appears.

“If you can’t do anything about something that went wrong, you just have to get over it and look ahead,” Benz says.

After three years of limited time due to recurring muscle injuries, Benz made a self-commitment last spring to make it through her senior season without injury. She wanted to believe that she can still perform at the level that once wooed over 30 programs across the nation when she was a star at Sonoma Valley High School.

Over the summer, she joined a local summer amateur team and put herself on a daily exercise regimen at the gym, silently conditioning herself to be in the best shape of her life by the start of the season.

“All she said was, ‘I’m going to get healthy,’” Rena Benz says. “When we finally saw her play this season, all we said was she was back to her healthy playing days in high school.”

In the year where the biggest question for the Bears was finding a replacement for striker Alex Morgan, Benz came in and silenced the doubters in a matter of weeks.

She started her season in grand fashion, scoring a golden goal against San Diego State to give the Bears their first win. She then scored in six consecutive matches, including a hat-trick against Denver on Sept. 4.

Because she was in the midst of a storybook season, the injury was all the more heartbreaking. But while her teammates and friends lamented the abrupt end to her Cal career even days after the injury, it only took minutes for Benz to get over it.

“Within five minutes of writhing in pain, I just stopped,” Benz says. “I can’t do anything about this. I couldn’t care less. This switch went on in my head that said, ‘Take it from here, there’s nothing I can do.”

Ever since the injury, Benz has become a symbol for the squad in different ways.

Some teammates see her as a reminder that an injury can happen in a flash. But for most, Benz is the fallen teammate who the team doesn’t want to let down on the field. For Benz, the ability to share her optimism even in the toughest times with her teammates would be the greatest score of all.

For the first time in her life, Katie Benz is without soccer.

Benz tried to prepare for this situation years ago, when she was deciding which of the dozens of Division-I programs to play for. But even then, she was not ready to let go of the sport.

“When I looking at colleges, one of the questions I asked myself was, ‘Where would I be happy if I got injured, to the point I couldn’t play?’” Benz says. “At one point you do leave the team and the sport, but not at this moment.

“I was getting ready for that two, three months later.”

Benz doesn’t know what the future has in store for her. For now, she simply wants to enjoy the ride of her last season right now. There is still soccer to be played for the Bears, and until the end of the season, Benz wants to focus solely on her team. Until that final whistle, Benz is committed to staying by her teammates, providing whatever support they need.

As she sees her last season at Cal dwindle down to the end, each second now seems to tick faster than the last.

For Benz, it is too soon to say goodbye.

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  • Shirley Jenkins

    Wow, what a role model.  I’m so proud of you Katie.   I see some of those strong Acadian genes coming through.  Way to go!!