Soldotna's Christa Kennedy passes the ball during a practice last week.
M. Scott Moon
One minute, Soldotna senior Christa Kennedy was leaping to corral the ball on a fast break, looking to help the Stars basketball team pull off an upset of No. 2-ranked Wasilla.
The next, Kennedy was on the floor with a knee injury, her future filled with uncertainty.
In that late February game during her sophomore year, Kennedy tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
“We were coming together and had a pretty good chance to make it to state,” Kennedy said. “Things didn’t go so good after the game.”
At the time, she was playing at a high enough level that she would be named an all-Northern Lights Conference player despite missing the end of the season.
But the injury put a long road back to athletic success ahead of Kennedy. She made it back due to two things that had made her successful in the first place a natural athletic talent and hard work.
From the end of March until early September, Kennedy went to physical therapy three days a week. After missing her junior year of volleyball, Kennedy said she gained confidence in the knee during basketball and soccer seasons.
“It’s a really hard process to go through mentally, especially in high school,” Kennedy said. “One of the things that went through my mind was, ‘Why did this have to happen to me? Why couldn’t this have happened to somebody else?’”
This summer, Kennedy showed she was back to full strength by touring tournaments in the Lower 48 with some of the best players in the state on a team organized by East High coach Dorena Bingham.
Upon returning from the hoops tour, Kennedy earned second team all-Northern Lights Conference honors in helping the Stars to their first state volleyball tournament appearance since 1997. Kennedy was able to do this even though she had played little volleyball since her knee injury.
“She’s pretty athletic. I was just hoping she would be strong with the knee,” Soldotna coach Pako Whannell said. “When she came back, she was back to being an all-around athlete.
“It was obvious she rehabbed it gradually, slowly and correctly so there would be no further injury.”
The athleticism that helped Kennedy come back from the injury has been a lifelong trait. John Kennedy, Christa’s father, said his daughter dabbled in soccer, basketball, hockey, volleyball and softball when she was young.
“She was just always athletic,” John Kennedy said. “She loved sports.”
Christa Kennedy said basketball was always her passion. She would also go on to play volleyball and soccer at Soldotna. Kennedy absorbed her volleyball abilities from her father, a longtime coach at both Soldotna and Skyview. She has played soccer since she was 4 years old.
By the time Kennedy hit Soldotna, she was accomplished enough in all three sports to earn varsity playing time as a freshman. By the time her sophomore year rolled around, she had adjusted to the speed of varsity sports enough to be a major contributor.
“As a sophomore, she was very consistent,” Whannell said. “She was probably one of the top three players, just like she was this year.”
In basketball, Kennedy’s Stars had won just two games when she was a freshman. As a sophomore, the team was 10-7 overall heading into that game against Wasilla.
Kennedy made her return to athletics as a junior in basketball. She said by that time the knee was not causing any pain. Even though her doctor told her it was stronger now, she still had to gain confidence in the joint.
“With a month left, I really started picking up the pace of my game,” Kennedy said.
The Stars ended up a game short of the state tournament falling to Colony in the third-place game of the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Even during soccer season, the injury was in the back of coach Jimmy Love’s mind. Kennedy can play midfield or forward, but Love put her at forward, partially because that would mean less running for the knee.
“She’s just a solid player who knows where to go and when to go there,” Love said. “She’s one of those all-around athletes. I wish I could have everybody be like that.”
John Kennedy says he thinks his daughter may have not been 100 percent back mentally and physically until the summer tour with 11 of Alaska’s best players. The squad got in about 35 games.
“It definitely pushed me,” Christa Kennedy said. “We saw some incredible teams and players down there. It was unbelievable.”
Kennedy said she hopes Soldotna’s run to the state tournament in volleyball and her experience with the touring team will help set the stage for a successful basketball season.
“She’ll probably play four positions for us this year,” Soldotna girls basketball coach Mark Tuter said. “She handles the ball well, rebounds well and shoots the 3 real well.
“She’s a really versatile player. She’s one of the most versatile players we’ve ever had.”
Kennedy, who has a 3.4 grade-point average, would like to attend college next year, play basketball and study physical therapy or sports medicine.
“One of her goals has been to play college basketball and she’s been working for that,” John Kennedy said. “Her mom (Lin) and dad are praying she’ll get what she wants an education and a little basketball on top of it.”
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