LAKE STEVENS — Montana Wahlberg, who will be a senior on the Lake Stevens High School girls soccer team this fall, has spent the better part of the past two years recovering from injuries that forced her to miss much of her sophomore and junior seasons and limited her abilities when she did get on the field.
But that was news to her premier soccer coach, Justi Baumgardt, a former member of the U.S. women’s national team. Baumgardt first learned of Wahlberg’s injuries while being interviewed for this story.
“I didn’t know she was injured,” Baumgardt said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of it, from you. I wouldn’t have even noticed. She seems healthy and she has played well. It is definitely a non-issue.”
Baumgardt has been fortunate to coach Wahlberg during the few healthy stretches Wahlberg has enjoyed since late in her freshman season, when she scored the game-winning goal against Jackson to send Lake Stevens to the Class 4A state tournament.
After the goal, Wahlberg was mobbed by her teammates. It remains the highlight of her high school career — not because she peaked that day, but because injuries have kept her from making other memorable moments.
The first injury, during her sophomore year, didn’t even happen on the soccer field. It came in P.E. while she was playing Ultimate Frisbee. She jumped, bumped into a classmate in the air and came down on her ankle wrong.
“I remember trying to get back up on it and I had a shock go up my leg and I sat down and took my shoe off,” Wahlberg said. “My ankle was the size of a softball. I had never seen ankle injuries before and that thing was huge.”
Wahlberg said she burst into tears when she realized she couldn’t get up on her own — not because of the pain, but because she knew she would miss time on the soccer field: The Vikings had a game that night.
Doctors originally told her it was a sprain, put her in a walking boot and told her to stay off it for 2-4 weeks. “That night, I just cried the whole game because I wished I was out there,” Wahlberg said.
She returned to action four weeks later, around playoff time. The swelling had gone down, but the pain was still there and it was clear the ankle hadn’t healed properly.
When the season ended, Wahlberg visited a specialist who told her the ligaments were stretched so far apart they would not heal properly. Her ankle had become so weak she would roll it walking down stairs.
In January of 2012, Wahlberg underwent surgery to repair the tendons in her ankle. She needed physical therapy to get the proper movement back.
She returned to the soccer field in June of that year before suffering another setback when she similarly injured her right ankle in July. Knowing she would miss her junior season if she opted for surgery, she worked with Lyman Drown, the athletic trainer at Lake Stevens, to strengthen the ankle to the point where she could play.
She returned to the Vikings soccer team after missing the first few weeks of the 2012 season.
Midway through the fall, she suffered a blow to the head that eventually was diagnosed as a concussion. She developed migraines that made it difficult to focus. She started to struggle in the classroom.
The recovery process from the concussion took another three to four months.
“It has been a long year trying to get healthy,” Wahlberg said. “It’s been really rough. My first ankle injury was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, just to sit there and watch my team play.”
Since getting over her concussion, Wahlberg has spent much of her time preparing for her senior season. She began private training sessions with Scott Flanders, the former boys soccer coach at Lake Stevens.
Flanders retired from coaching in 2011 after leading the Vikings to the state championship game in 2010.
“It’s really filled the void of not coaching anymore,” Flanders said. “It’s such a pleasure to have somebody who wants to come and get better every single day and is asking and pushing to try and work out as much as possible. Not everyone is always looking forward to practice and she is seeking me out to practice more.”
Flanders remembers the potential he saw when Wahlberg first arrived at Lake Stevens.
“The girls coach and I were just thinking, ‘Man, the sky is the limit for this girl. She is a freshman and she is just going to have a stellar career,’” Flanders said.
“Now she senses that it is coming to an end and she is training with an energy and a passion of somebody that senses that it is going to come to an end here in a year. She wants to make every possible chance count this year.”
Flanders said he expects a healthy Wahlberg to pick up where she left off as a freshman.
“I have no doubt she is going to be one of the top standout scorers in the league,” he said. “She plays with an urgency that is just a goal-scorer’s mentality. She is trying to beat you every time she gets the ball and she is trying to score.”
Wahlberg will compete with her Crossfire premier team through next July and has hopes that a college soccer career awaits.
“If she can stay healthy and she can continue to improve her game, she can play at the next level,” Baumgardt said.
Wahlberg has been through a lot in the past two years, but it has taught her more about herself than she ever knew before.
“You are going to go through hard things in life, you just have to stay positive,” Wahlberg said. “To get back to where you want to be you are going to have to work three times as hard. One injury playing Ultimate Frisbee and it has been a year and a half of just trying to get back into shape to get back to where I was.
“That’s why I’m trying to make this year my best year, because I have to make up for lost time.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.