For the first time in two years, Kayla Saager is back on a college pitch and enjoying a strong start to her first season at Binghamton University.
With five goals and four assists for the Bearcats through the team’s first seven games of the season, Saager has played 621 minutes and been named the America East Conference Player of the Week twice during the early weeks of the season.
“It’s a start that I could have really only hoped for,” she said. “We worked all spring and summer at improving and to change the mentality of the team, and we have some freshmen who have played good minutes and have really helped us. It’s been a great start to the season”
Saager gives much of the credit to the team’s changed mentality to the coaching staff, led by head coach Neel Bhattacharjee, who she credits with bringing a fresh perspective to the Bearcats.
“Once everyone got on board with the same goals, it has made a huge difference,” she said.
While Saager has opened many eyes with her early-season play, the road for the East Islip native to upstate New York has been full of twists and turns that date back to her days as a middle school student and soccer player in Long Island.
Each day as she heads to training or suits up for a game, a key piece of Saager’s equipment is the large brace she wears on her left knee, a reminder that each moment she spends on a soccer field is precious and to be enjoyed.
She was dealt her first major injury blow as an eighth-grader when she tore her ACL. While a common injury for athletes in many sports, her age at the time and the fact that she was still growing meant she would be away from the game she loves for 18 months.
“We had to wait for my growth plate to close,” she recalled. “I wasn’t able to play again until my sophomore year in high school.”
But her knee problems were far from over. During her junior year in high school, she would suffer a meniscus injury, which would recur during her freshman year of college at North Carolina State.
“At the start of my freshman season, all was good,” she said. “After tearing my meniscus, I tried to play through it but it didn’t work out and I needed another surgery. I could have had a meniscus transplant, but then I would not have been able to play again. That is why I have to wear my knee brace.”
The damage sustained, most notably to the meniscus, means Saager’s knee is now bone on bone. But she said that she is able to play pain-free, but takes certain precautions such as icing her knee after training or a game and completing extra stretching.
After her one season at N.C. State, Saager transferred to the University of West Virginia, one of the nation’s top women’s collegiate soccer programs, where Long Island native Lisa Stoia serves as an assistant coach.
But her knee issues limited her playing time to only three games, where she scored twice, and Saager felt it was best to look for her next college opportunity.
“I was still in rehab and it was hard for me to get back to playing at a high level,” she said. “I had to be realistic with myself. But while it was difficult for me to transfer again, I found my home in Binghamton.”
The big attraction to the green and white, Saager said, was the coaching staff. In addition to Bhattacharjee, the prior relationships she had with assistant coaches Taylor Schram and Jackie Firenze helped with her decision to transfer to Binghamton.
“I’ve known Taylor since I was 12 years old and she was a graduate assistant when I was with West Virginia,” Saager said. “I also played with Jackie’s younger sister, Emma. So I trust both of them and know they would not lead me in the wrong direction.”
While she is focused on her current-day playing career, Saager’s time on the sidelines recovering from injury and sitting out after transferring to Binghamton has given her a new perspective on the game and planted a seed for a future coaching career.
“I’ve learned so much while sitting out,” she said. “I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and being on the sidelines has allowed me to see the game from another perspective. I do see myself as a coach one day and can’t wait for the opportunity to recruit my own team.”