Kristy McGregor-Bales realizes dream after torn ACL
The game is tied at zero midway through the first half. Dalhousie has possession at the whistle, preparing for a free kick nearly 30 yards away from the net. It’s prime territory for the Tigers.
Over on Dal’s bench, bench boss Jack Hutchison is focused elsewhere on the pitch. He spots one of his defenders darting toward the cluster of players near the ball.
“Hold! Hold!” bellows the fifth-year coach of the Tigers’ women’s soccer team.
Twisting her head in Hutchison’s direction is Kristy McGregor-Bales, standing a slender five feet eight inches. She has moved up too far in the play and must retreat back; she is a centre-back, mind you.
The Tigers rookie understands her coach’s one word request, but before following his order she shares a glance with Hutchison and smiles, if only for a second.
“It’s a fun game,” says McGregor-Bales.
The sweet, perhaps meaningless, moment is only a snapshot of this year’s Tigers. McGregor-Bales is one of seven other rookies. The team has no fifth-year veterans. This is a young squad and a highly successful one at that.
There’s a shyness and a quiet determination to McGregor-Bales on the field. She means business. It’s why the grin at her coach is so special. She, in a single instance, lightened the mood. Soccer, after all, is just a game.
Inspiring the troops
Dressed in a white Tigers jersey sporting the number 23, McGregor-Bales, alongside her teammates, strolled into the dance studio at Studley Gym to hear from the coaching staff. The meeting covers such standard fare as pressuring the opposition and discussing set plays.
“Who’s got the near posts on the offensive corner?” asks Hutchison. It’s one of his few questions.
McGregor-Bales raises her hand. It’s one of the centre back’s finest chances to get on the scoresheet.
Her coach then discussed St. FX, their opponents in under an hour.
“You’ve got a team coming to play you that you spanked the last time you played them,” says Hutchison. “They owe you a beating!” he adds, his voice rising.
Hutchison attempts to inspire his girls by comparing their midseason success with a tale of accomplished former Tiger Leanne Huck. Tigers assistant coach Danielle Purcell recalls to the team how Huck had six goals in a senior women’s national championship game earlier this month, and how she refused to let up in her next game although Dunbrack’s star was the focus of every opposing defender on the field. Huck would score twice.
“I tip my hat off to you girls because you put yourself on the top of the leaderboard,” he says, removing his ballcap. “They’re coming after you. Are you woman enough to handle it?”
A coach’s rallying cry is nothing new for McGregor-Bales. She spent her childhood surrounded by athletes.
Raised in Ottawa’s eastern suburb of Chapel Hill, McGregor-Bales was encouraged to attend the local sports school in Grade 7, Louis Riel Secondary School, by her athletics-friendly parents. Her mother is the CEO of the national governing body McGregor-Bales is playing for, Canadian Interuniversity Sport, and her father was an avid paddler.
In grade 9, the school required McGregor-Bales to commit to a sport; a decision that did not come easy to her. How would she choose between soccer and basketball?
“I had been invited to a provincial tryout so that’s why I decided to go into soccer, specialize at it” she said. After all, she was beginning to turn a few heads.
An injury’s cost
In the midst of a sea of Dal’s white uniforms, shorts and socks on the field this afternoon is the contrasting appearance of the colour black emanating from McGregor-Bales’ leg brace. The reinforcement is common for a soccer athlete, but hers is protecting a left knee that kept McGregor-Bales sidelined around the time she was supposed to be auctioning off her soccer talents to prospective universities.
Aug. 26, 2010 wasn’t a day McGregor-Bales will forget anytime soon.
She was training, improving her speed, when disaster struck. A simple jump over a hurdle became an ill-fated misstep, causing her left knee to give out when landing. She tore her ACL, among the worst injuries a soccer player can withstand. She would be out around eight months, likely more.
It was hardly an enticing time to succumb to an injury.
“It was kind of one step at a time, try to get back as fast as possible,” McGregor-Bales recalls. “I think I knew if I did sort of stop and think about it, I would have started crying.”
Injured two years earlier because of a torn meniscus, McGregor-Bales knew her awkward fall would keep her sidelined for a while. Choosing to avoid the longer wait times in Ottawa, she went to Quebec with her family’s support to pay for a MRI scan at a private clinic.
The surgeon removed any doubt McGregor-Bales had about her diagnosis two weeks after the initial injury. Her ACL was completely shot.
“Seeing those results was so shattering,” she says. “It’s a year before I’m supposed to be starting university and I want to be playing university soccer, and now I know I’m going to be out for at least six months post-surgery, plus, however long it takes pre-surgery. So it was really, really tough not knowing how long I would be away.”
Becoming a Tiger
The injury obviously didn’t please McGregor-Bales, but it was also a disappointment for the Dalhousie Tigers, which expressed interest in her.
McGregor-Bales would recover from her ACL injury, but would she return with the same flash she displayed before?
“That was the gamble with her knee injury,” Hutchison says. “The knee injury was not this summer but last summer so she had time, but that’s not to say it’s going to come back to where you want it.
“I don’t want to say it was a long shot, but we bet a little on a dark horse. And it’s been everything we hoped it would be.”
McGregor-Bales kept her university shortlist brief. A few schools expressed interest but she did not return the same sentiment. McGregor-Bales instead had interest from both the school and herself at Dal, Carleton, a school she grew up watching, and the University of Toronto.
What attracted her to Dal was the city, her recreation management program and Jack’s support throughout her injury.
“He seemed very understanding of my injury and what interested me is that he knew how he wanted to develop the program and there are many resources available at Dal, like physio and a sports trainer.
“He was really understanding about how difficult it is to choose a university and how big of a decision it is.”
Exactly six months after surgery, the young defender returned to play on May 5, shortly after committing to Dal. She missed the opening of her high school season, but was there for the team when it mattered most. Her school won the provincial championship for the second time in three years.
Betting on the right horse
Hutchison was right to bet on a strong return from McGregor-Bales. She appears to have been a fantastic investment.
The normally reserved rookie finds her voice on the pitch. At centre back she leads the team’s defensive core. She’s essentially the quarterback, the communicator—even as a rookie player.
“That’s a big part of my game: communication. It’s a lot easier game when you’re talking,” says McGregor-Bales.
Her play was never fancy. It didn’t need to be. The ball came to her, and she cleared it; time and time again. From blocking errant passes to stepping into the play for a tackle, she was in control.
“She’s the type of player who can play a game and just have a tremendous influence on it, but yet never touch the ball because she’s directing traffic,” says Hutchison, “For us, she’s just so crucial. So smart.”
A bright future
The Tigers, like McGregor-Bales, entered this season with a big question mark hanging over them. They were young and unknown, but they have accomplished great things. The Tigers are second in the AUS with a 7 – 2 record and were on the CIS Top 10 rankings for two weeks before the Thanksgiving break.
“If this is a rebuilding year, I’m so excited for the years to come because it’s been a fantastic experience so far,” says McGregor-Bales.
The future looks bright for Jack Hutchison’s latest charges. It may even be something worth smiling about.
Editor’s Note: The Gazette would like to thank Kristy McGregor-Bales and the women’s soccer team for providing behind-the-scenes access to the team during their Oct. 15 game against St. FX.
*For profiles on some of the other up-and-comers of the Dal women’s soccer team, click here.