It was almost a year ago to the date, Oct. 15, 2016 to be precise, that Savannah Smith’s life changed dramatically.
The then-North Arlington High School sophomore was having a sensational soccer season, scoring 16 goals in the Vikings’ first 10 games, when disaster struck.
“I heard a pop noise and I knew my knee didn’t feel right,” Smith said. “I went to shoot the ball and another girl came over to the play. I swung my leg and missed the ball and that was it.”
The result was a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Smith’s right knee. The injury required surgery and ended Smith’s sophomore season in a heartbeat.
Smith’s season-ending injury also ended any hope of the Vikings competing for state or league honors.
“When she went down, we only had two losses,” said North Arlington girls’ soccer coach Dan Farinola. “After that, we only won two more games.”
Smith was playing a solid center midfield for the Vikings, scoring at will and distributing the ball to others.
But it was time to concentrate on only one thing _ getting better and getting back out there.
“I was really determined to get back,” Smith said. “Missing those games really made me upset. I really wanted to get back to show people what I could do. I was really scared that I might not be able to play again.”
Smith was fortunate to have a mother who works in the medical industry at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair. Through her mother, Smith was introduced to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Benke, who determined that Smith’s injury wasn’t as severe as most ACL tears that require taking a ligament from another part of the body and placing it in the patient’s injured knee.
Benke determined that Smith’s ligament could be repaired, but it was a radical surgery that has not been in regular use yet throughout the country.
Smith worked diligently with her rehabilitation. She also went to the New York Giants/Hackensack University Medical Center training facility in Maywood to work with physical trainer Gio Grassi, who does a lot of the strength work with the Giants.
“He helped me with my one-on-one skills, the acceleration and de-acceleration,” Smith said.
After seven months of the grueling rehab, Smith was ready to return to action.
“It was tough,” Smith said. “I went to physical therapy for four months. I spent three months at the Giants training center. It definitely helped, but I still felt like I was a little weak.”
Farinola didn’t want to risk any harm to his star player, so he decided to move Smith from the center midfield slot to the forward line.
“Last year, when she was a center midfielder, I used her in a different role,” Farinola said. “I was confident that she could still score as a forward. There were a lot of changes, but I felt good about it. I moved her up so she didn’t have to run as much. She did a good job rehabbing the knee. She wasn’t favoring it at all. But I felt it was the right move.”
Farinola also determined to utilize a different strategy with Smith.
“I’d play her a little and sub for her a lot,” Farinola said. “I wanted to give her some breaks, just to make sure.”
It didn’t take long for Farinola to realize that his star player was just fine.
Smith scored four goals in the season opening win against Harrison and added three more against Immaculate Conception of Lodi.
“At first, I was a little nervous,” Smith said. “I was worried if I was able to play the way I used to play. Once I scored the first goal, I said, ‘I can do this.’ I wasn’t expecting to do so well. I’m proud of myself. That first game back set the tone for the rest of the season.”
Smith scored seven goals in the first two games and never stopped scoring. The Vikings have played 10 games and Smith has tallied 21 goals, which is good for the fourth highest total in the entire state. She’s had at least two goals in eight of the Vikings’ 10 games and she’s scored at least one goal in all 10. It’s quite a remarkable streak for someone who is coming off radical knee surgery.
“It feels really good,” Smith said. “I don’t want the streak to end.”
Smith believes that she’s getting excellent chances to score.
“The midfielders are really sending me good balls,” Smith said. “So they’ve helped me out with that. I am getting used to playing forward and getting my chances from there. I feel like I’m faster and I’m getting to the ball faster.”
“She can shoot with both feet,” Farinola said. “Some of her shots are rockets. She always had the ability to shoot the ball. But this is really impressive. And we have more of a competitive team.”
The Vikings are 7-2-1 in the first 10 games of the season. They face Hoboken and have a rematch with Immaculate Conception of Lodi on Thursday this week.
“There are a lot of power points up for grabs,” Farinola said about possible state playoff positioning. “This is a big week for us.”
But the Vikings’ chances are enhanced tremendously now having a healthy and happy Smith scoring goals at will.
“I’m really happy with the results,” said Smith, who is only a junior and has another full year of soccer at North Arlington remaining. “There were always doubters. But I was able to come through it all.”
Smith now sets her sight on the school scoring record of 36 goals by Christine Rutherford a few years ago.
“I don’t know what the record is, but I’d like to try for it,” Smith said. “It’s a good goal to set for myself.”
Although still a junior, Smith has her sights on the next level. A handful of colleges have expressed interest in recruiting Smith.
“It’s all good,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I want to do yet. I’m looking at some schools and then I’ll figure out what I want to do.”
“I guess next year, people will want to come to see her,” Farinola said. “This year will help put her on the map. I think she can play at a big school. It’s just finding the right fit.”
And as for that injured knee?
“I don’t think at all about the past,” Smith said. “Whatever happened is long gone.”
North Arlington junior forward Savannah Smith has scored at least one goal in each of the Vikings’ 10 games this season and she has 21 goals in all. Photo by Jim Hague