By Jack Dougherty, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - At every meeting, practice, and match there is always one player on the Penn State women's soccer team with a constant smile on her face.
That player isn't in the game making slide tackles or on the practice field running sprints.
That player has suffered three ACL tears in the past five years that have stopped her from stepping foot on Jeffrey Field in game action. She will never be able to do so.
That player has been one of the strongest and most crucial influences that has contributed to the massive success Penn State has endured while she's been a part of the team.
That player is Angela Widlacki.
Widlacki suffered her first knee injury in her junior year of high school. She made a sharp cut to defend an opposing attacker and torn her left ACL, an injury that kept her out all season.
She had committed to Penn State prior to the injury, and head coach Erica Dambach had no hesitation to still bring her on board. Dambach offered words of encouragement to Widlacki throughout her rehab process with the confidence that she would come back stronger than ever.
Widlacki did just that, as she led Naperville North High School to a state championship in her senior season. The team didn't lose a game.
In her first two seasons in Blue and White, Widlacki was a steady bench presence cheering on her teammates through her recovery, and she was ready to contribute in year three.
Widlacki had a solid camp in the summer of 2015 and carried high expectations going into her junior year, but the injury bug came back to bite at the most inopportune time. In the team's preseason tune-up against Army, Widlacki was marking an opponent on the end line when she was hip checked to the ground, tearing her right ACL in the process.
She was unable to play all last season.
Widlacki was back practicing with the team in the beginning of this year until the week following Penn State's loss to BYU. During practice that week, Widlacki suffered her third ACL tear. The following week, the MRI revealed she had a partially torn ACL and meniscus, and she was informed she wouldn't be able to play again.
For most, this news would be so devastating it would discourage them from ever wanting to be involved with soccer again and make them curse the very sport that betrayed them.
For Widlacki, she says it's the one of the best things that's ever happened to her.
"I got so much more appreciation for the little things in life, like walking," Widlacki said. "There's so much strength for you to pull out of yourself in that moment and you're going to waste that if you're dwelling on it or just seeing the negatives."
Seeing the negatives is something Widlacki simply refuses to do. She's still one of the peppiest players at practice every day, and she works just as hard now as she did when she had shin pads on.
"Regardless of whether she's healthy or not it's the same personality and attitude and fight and determination," said Dambach. "But talk about turning [the injury] into something positive and being a huge part of the team despite injury. She's the heart and soul of this group."
Widlacki has assumed an active role as a self-defined 'mini coach,' without the thought of leaving the team even entering her mind. She's currently assisting the coaches with preparing for upcoming matchups and adding her input mid-game.
"First and foremost, always being a good role model to the underclassmen, just trying to be helpful, trying to keep a positive attitude," Widlacki said. "And I kind of try to look for the little things within the game that, maybe [the coaches] are focusing on a bigger picture and there's a little tweak that they might miss I can point out."
"It was something we felt our team needed and she seemed to be the perfect person because it's something that's near and dear to her heart," Dambach said. "I think it's been a perfect match and it's been really helpful for me and in matches for her to come down at halftime and talk about what she's seeing."
In the realm of coaching, this isn't foreign territory for Widlacki. This past summer Widlacki worked as the assistant director for the Red Stars Academy in Chicago. She gained valuable experience coaching girls aged 6-16 and realized she found something she could see herself doing in the future.
"I really enjoy coaching and coaching little kids a lot more than sitting in an office," Widlacki said.
Widlacki's biggest influence who led her to recognize her love for coaching is her club coach and former Penn State defender Bonnie Young. Young opened the door for Widlacki to work with Red Stars Academy.
Young also set up an East Coast college tour for Widlacki and her club team, which led to Widlacki choosing to travel 595 miles from Naperville, Ill. to Penn State to earn a degree.
"I owe so much to her. She's an incredible lady," Widlacki said.
Aside from soccer, Widlacki is an active participant in THON at Penn State. She danced on the floor last year for 46 straight hours, and was able to take the lessons she learned there about facing adversity and apply them to her current situation.
"You can feel that you're having an impact on them immediately, and just getting to know the kids and the families and see what you're doing for them, I think I'm more grateful to them for showing me how strong they can be," Widlacki said. "People say that I'm strong through my injuries, but meeting those kids and hearing those stories-- way stronger. Way, way stronger."
Widlacki may not be able to help the team on the field, but she's an irreplaceable piece to the puzzle. Neither Widlacki nor the rest of the team even considered parting ways after the news of her third ACL tear, proving this group isn't just a team. It's a family.
Widlacki's injuries are certainly cruel and unlucky, but no one should feel sorry for her. That's not what she's going to do. That's not what she wants from anyone, either.
"Situations like this where I can't really change how I got injured, it happened and that's how I see it," Widlacki said. "It happened, what's the next step? I think when you see something like this, I don't see a point in being down about it. There's no reason to dwell on it. I think everything happens for a reason, and there's a reason that I'm here in this role now."
Widlacki is optimistic about the next chapter in her life and grateful for the time she was able to play at a high level. This isn't the end of the Angela Widlacki story, it's only the prologue.