Sierra Overcomes Obstacles to Lead Dolphins to NCAA Tournament
by Jim Nasella

A little experience never hurt anyone, even if it was a bad experience. If you don’t believe that, ask JU women’s soccer goal keeper Sarah Sierra.

In Sierra’s case, a bad experience in high school was just what the doctor ordered in college.

Sierra, a redshirt junior from Madera, Calif., is coming off one of the greatest games of her career as the Dolphins head to the NCAA tournament to play Florida this weekend in Gainesville.

The exercise science and business management major recorded a shutout and survived a pressure-packed penalty kick session as JU advanced past Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun tournament final, winning the penalty kick phase 5-3 this past weekend. For her efforts she was named the tournament Most Valuable Player and put on the All-Tournament team.

Sierra’s road to the big show comes a season after missing an entire year with a torn ACL, meniscus damage and damage to the tibia in her right leg suffered in a pick-up game in early April of 2012.

This isn’t the first time she has had such an injury as she tore her ACL and wrecked the meniscus as a junior in high school. That first injury certainly was a help in recovering from the second.

“I took my time with this because it was my second time tearing the ACL,’’ she said. “Sitting out (last season) was hard because I wasn’t able to play with some of my best friends and wasn’t able to finish a season with them. But, I’d been through it before so I knew what I had to do in order to get back to where I needed to be.’’

The blow of the second injury also was lessoned because of what was at stake during her first injury back home.

“The first time I tore it I was upset a while,’’ she said. “Your junior year in high school is prime recruiting time and I wasn’t able to play so that was hard. This time around I thought there was no reason to be depressed, I still had two more years of soccer. I feel like it happened for a reason and I think it helped my game, honestly, because I came back stronger than ever.’’

JU coach Brian Copham said it didn’t take long for he and his staff to figure out Sierra would be fine when she came back for spring drills earlier this year.

“One of the things we wondered about was how she going to come back,’’ he said. “A big portion of goal keeping is athletic ability, but maybe a bigger portion is mentality. We wanted to see how both of those were affected.’’

The answer? She wasn’t affected negatively.

“She’s not the biggest player so athletically she couldn’t afford to come back to where she was and she has to go into it with the mentality that ‘I’m going to get the ball and nothing else matters’,’’ Copham said. “You can’t worry about getting hit. That was our question, what is this going to look like? It wasn’t long after she came back in the spring we could tell she had worked incredibly hard on her rehab. We could see she was going to be back and not missing a beat.’’

The only concession Sierra has to the injury is the brace on her right knee. She’d rather go without it, but doctors, coaches and trainers insist the cumbersome apparatus protects during play.

This season she logged 1,764 minutes, recorded 84 saves and had a 1.07 goals against average.

“Toward end of season I felt more comfortable,’’ she said. “I didn’t have a lot of shutouts (five) but our record improved and we were second in conference. I don’t think I did my best but as a team I think we did really well.’’

Included in those totals is the brutal game against FGCU in the A-Sun final.

The Eagles fired away 31 times, not all shots on goal thankfully, and Sierra recorded a career-best 10 saves in the physical contest which included a violent collision with FGCU’s Kaitlin Parker in the second overtime.

“I took quite a beating,’’ she said. “She ran into my left hip, I tumbled over her and it was a really hard hit.’’

Sierra went down in a heap; Parker lay sprawled on the pitch as a result.

“It hurt so bad I don’t know how I walked away from it.’’

And despite the shot, Sierra wound up facing the penalty kicks.

“The pressure was very high and some of their fans (a group of about 100 stationed right behind her in goal) were very loud and trying to get in my head.’’

Her efforts led one ESPN announcer to term her performance “stupendous” to which Sierra managed a chuckle.

“It was one of the greatest games I have ever played,’’ she said. “I went in with the mindset that I didn’t want this to be the last game for our three seniors. I did everything possible.’’

She got her wish and next up are the Gators at 2 p.m. Saturday at UF’s James G. Pressly Stadium.

“Getting to the tournament was our goal from the beginning of the season,’’ she said. “There was no doubt in my mind we would make it with this group of girls. I felt when we started playing this was going to be a special year.’’