Updated Dec. 1 with score of semifinal, date of title game — The undefeated Central Missouri Jennies women’s soccer team is hoping to earn its first NCAA Division II national championship.
But this season, which continues Saturday with the title game matchup against Carson-Newman, wasn’t without challenges: The team has been affected by an increasing national trend from high school athletics to the pros — concussions.
Emily Franchett would have been a senior midfielder this year for what has shaped up as the best season ever for women’s soccer at Central Missouri, which is 24-0 and in the NCAA semifinals for the first time. But she quit the game last year because of her fourth concussion.
When asked about the first one she suffered, at Shawnee Mission High School, it’s apparent that the Lenexa native’s symptoms linger.
“The first one ...” Franchett says, then pauses. “With all of them it’s hard to remember.”
Something as simple as checking Twitter or her text messages is an arduous task.
“The scrolling would make me dizzy because of the movement of the words and stuff,” she says. “It all goes way too fast.”
There’s a growing awareness of concussions and their effects at all levels of sports, perhaps most publicly in the NFL, where several players posthumously were diagnosed with CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which is brought on by repeated brain trauma.
And at least three current or former pro women’s soccer players have said they’ll donate their brains for research, including Abby Wambach. Four years ago, she was struck in the head by a ball and was concussed, but the referees didn’t allow medical personnel on the field. It was a decision U.S. Soccer later admitted was mishandled.
Dr. Meg Gibson, the lead team doctor for UMKC athletics, says she’s seeing more concussions.
“I think that a lot of that is due to better knowledge by parents, coaches and athletes about the symptoms of a concussion and what those may present and how they may present in our athletes,” Gibson said.
In a study released last spring, Northwestern University researchers found that at the high school level, only football has a higher rate of concussions than girls soccer. It considered any practice or game “an exposure,” and found that in football, there were 9.4 concussions for every 10,000 exposures. The rate for the girls soccer teams? 9.1 concussions.
The NCAA has recommendations to diagnose and treat a concussion. And at Central Missouri, women’s soccer players take a preseason baseline test for memory. Coach Lewis Theobald says if players have concussion symptoms during games or practice, the first step is get them off the field.
“The coaches are out of any decision-making for that. (The players) have to pass the test, then there’s a five- to seven-day period where they slowly work back up to full contact and full soccer practices,” he says.
Head injuries in women’s soccer occur for a variety of reasons, but Franchett says she made a conscious effort not to use her head to control the ball — a move known as heading.
“My coaches would even actually yell at me if I tried to head the ball because it becomes instinctual as a soccer player,” Franchett says. “You go up to make contact with the ball.
Theobald says his coaching style has changed at UCM the last 11 years.
“When we do do heading, like any technique, we start very basic and work our way up,” he says. “I think actually in the last two years all soccer coaches have become a lot more aware of the impact of concussions in every sport.”
But it was an errant ball off the head — much like the one that struck Wambach — that ended Franchett’s career during a preseason practice before her junior year.
“It shook my brain up so much that I got vertigo and couldn’t see anything,” Franchett recalls. “Basically, everything was white and that had never happened to me before.”
This season, another player for Central Missouri, freshman Mallory Broady, went down with a concussion and missed games late in the season.
Theobald says he’s been trying to ease her back into action, but is doing so with caution.“I think we certainly want to do what’s safe for her,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to put her out there at risk for sure.”
Franchett saw Broady’s concussion while watching that match online.
“I instantly became sad for her because I know how that feeling is and knowing that you’re about to sit out a couple weeks of soccer,” Franchett says. “Every day is a struggle because it affects reading. It affects the lights. Everything affects you.”
She offers this advice to players: “Take what the doctors say and don’t take it lightly. Actually do it.”
Franchett, an arts major, has adjusted to the reality of no longer playing. But as long as the Jennies are in the hunt for the national title, she’ll be watching. Franchett plans to cheer — from the bleachers.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.