‘I’m just excited to get back out there’: Goalkeeper Rachel Harris’ journey back to the pitch

Junior goalkeeper Rachel Harris kicks the ball during the soccer game against the Texas Longhorns on Sept 29, 2019. (File Photo by Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

Working through adversity is something every Division I athlete is familiar with, but for junior goalkeeper Rachel Harris, adversity takes on a whole new meaning. Her ability to fight through it does not go unnoticed by her teammates and coaches.

For someone who worked her whole life to get to the point she is at right now — playing on a college soccer team with teammates she loves and for a school she loves even more — it was a grueling year.

“Last time I got to put on cleats was last August,” Harris said.

A knee injury suffered last season which turned out worse than originally expected kept the junior sidelined for seven months. For Harris, surgery was the last resort, but after exhausting several types of rehab and as the toll of playing through pain became too much, she underwent two surgeries in September and November last year to repair her damaged knee.

Where a lot of athletes might take an injury like hers as an excuse to shut themselves down, Harris did the opposite. Despite being unable to be out on the field with her teammates, she dedicated herself to helping in any way she could.

It’s something head coach Mike Dibbini said he is thankful for.

“She’s one of our student athletes, but she’s a person of integrity and understanding that whatever she can do to help this team be successful, that’s what she’ll do,” Dibbini said. “Giving her feedback and giving her coaching opinion within their goalkeeper union department is crucial to our development.”

Having to watch from the sidelines helped Harris gain a new perspective on the game. It allowed her to make the most of her time off the field and act as an assistant coach for the Wildcats.

Harris said it’s important to her that her teammates know nothing will stop her from doing what she can to help the team improve. The way she sees it, building up her teammates will always outweigh the competition to beat each other out. It’s a lesson she’s carried with her from her time playing soccer at Arkansas.

“That was something that was hard at Arkansas,” Harris said. “When I was playing as a freshman and even as a sophomore, I felt like it was me and I didn’t have the support of everybody else, and in a way those other people that aren’t playing, they want you to mess up so they get an opportunity, and that was a big thing that I hated.”

Harris’s ability to bring out the best in her teammates is a big part of why she was named one of two team captains last year. This leadership trait Harris has is what allows her fellow goalkeepers to know that no matter who is in goal, the other keepers on the bench are cheering them on.

“There’s a lot to be said about what she’s doing for our program,” Dibbini said. “And it’s not going unnoticed.”

Harris’s role in the program will only continue to get bigger as she progresses further into her rehab — ultimately getting closer to returning to the field. She is still about four months out from her usual regimen and just recently put the gloves back on to do some drills from a seated position.

“I’m excited to get back out there because it’s been a very long time,” she said. “[On March 24], I was talking to our athletic trainer and she said I can start sitting on my butt and catching balls. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I haven’t had the chance to even put on gloves or do anything goalkeeper-wise in a long time.”

Her excitement to return to the field is shared by her teammates, who are thrilled to witness her return. Freshman Alaina Werremeyer is a fellow goalkeeper who will be cheering Harris on as soon as she can get back out there. For Werremeyer, she’s just returning the favor since Harris always cheered her on.

“She’s just an incredible warrior,” Werremeyer said. “She works so hard every day to get better and she is so focused on the team and I’m so excited to have her back.”

If there’s one thing Harris’ teammates have learned, it’s not to doubt her when she sets her mind to something, and that soon, she’ll be right back where she belongs, wearing the purple and white in goal for the Wildcats.