DURHAM, N.C. - Less than a year after anchoring the U.S. Under-19 women’s lacrosse team to a world championship title, Kelsey Duryea could not play. A torn knee ligament sidelined one of the most sought-after prep goalkeepers in the class of 2012 for the majority of her senior season and delayed the start of what many anticipated would be a successful college career in the cage.
Although the injury complicated her transition to taking the field in a Duke uniform, the road to recovery provided Duryea with newfound appreciation for the sport.
A high school All-America in lacrosse and a three-sport athlete at The Governor’s Academy in Newbury, Mass., Duryea was one of just 18 players selected to the U-19 national squad out of a pool of over 200 hopefuls. She worked her way to earning the nod as the starting goalie for Team USA at the 2011 Federation of International Lacrosse World Championship in Germany. Along with future Duke teammates Maddy Acton, Brigid Smith and Taylor Trimble, Duryea powered the team to a goal-medal finish in the 10-day tournament, topping Australia in the final by a 14-11 score.
Poised for a solid end to her high school playing career, Duryea instead missed most of the spring season after suffering a torn ACL in her team’s first game. It was a devastating blow, but the Duke-bound keeper focused on beginning the lengthy rehabilitation process.
“I knew that I was going to Duke since I was a junior (in high school), and I never really thought there would be anything standing in the way of me playing lacrosse,” Duryea says. “It was definitely a big learning experience for me, in addition to making me work that much harder.”
Following a six-week rehabilitation period, Duryea underwent surgery and then continued rehab in Massachusetts before coming to Durham last July. Her early arrival on campus allowed Duryea to perform exercises and receive treatment under the care of athletic trainer Jen McCollum and members of the Duke Sports Medicine team.
As her new teammates filtered back onto campus and began fall workouts and tournament games, Duryea was progressing through her exercises. She relearned basic physical movements such as squatting, all the while awaiting the moment when she could step back in the crease and face shots. Though she remained committed throughout the process, Duryea learned, just like other athletes who suffer serious injuries, that the road back to the playing field is a long one, full of ups and downs.
“It was sometimes very frustrating for me because I felt like as much as I was doing, I didn’t always see the feedback that I wanted,” she says. “There were times where I didn’t see the end of the road, but then there were definitely times where I felt great and I knew that there was only a certain amount of time left.”
Encouragement from her teammates, coaches, support staff and friends and family back home helped Duryea maintain a positive outlook as the Blue Devils prepared for the spring. She slowly regained the ability to participate in some light drills and even take a few shots. A few games into the season, she underwent a series of tests with physical therapist Ron Weathers to determine how close she was to returning to the field.
“It was all about baby steps as far as what Kelsey and I could do together,” says Duke assistant coach Amanda Barnes of Duryea’s rehabilitation. “For a while she wasn’t allowed to step towards a ball. She just had to catch it with her hands — no sticks. It was totally deconstructed, what we had to do with her.”
In late February, as Duke prepared to visit Atlantic Coast Conference opponent and eventual ACC champion Maryland, that moment finally came. McCollum quietly informed Duryea at a practice that week that she had been medically cleared and would be available for the game against the Terrapins.
“I started immediately crying. I’m not a big crier and I had never anticipated that happening, but I couldn’t stop crying,” Duryea recalls. “Everyone came over and gave me a big hug. The support that I’ve had from this team has been amazing and it’s kept my spirits up and helped me have a positive attitude even when I was frustrated and it was really hard. I guess it was just the moment — everything had paid off and I got to see how happy everyone else was for me.”
Duryea made her first appearance in goal during the second half against Maryland and took over starting responsibilities the very next game, collecting her first career win in a 15-12 victory over Vanderbilt. Showing few signs of having missed significant time or of being a rookie, Duryea led the ACC and at one point the country in saves per game and save percentage. She also excelled against top offenses, notching a season-best 15 saves against North Carolina to become one of just four goalkeepers in program history to tally 15 or more stops in a game.
“The great thing about Kelsey, once you teach her something, she gets it,” Barnes says. “She’s able to put it into action pretty quickly … It’s nice to see that she’s taken advantage of an opportunity, and that she’s worked hard and it’s paying off.”
A three-time ACC Defensive Player of the Week selection and a member of the All-ACC squad, Duryea’s performance in the net has not gone unnoticed. She anchored a defense that allowed just 8.88 goals per game heading into the NCAA Tournament while limiting eight opponents to single-digit scoring during the regular season. That trend continued in the postseason as the Blue Devils beat Princeton 10-9 and Navy 10-5 to reach the round of 16. Duryea had 10 saves in the Navy win as Duke’s defense held the Mids scoreless for over 40 consecutive minutes. Duryea matched her season high of 15 saves in the Blue Devils’ season-ending NCAA loss to Maryland, just a few days after she was named second team All-America.
Duryea credits the players in front of her, as well as senior goalkeeper Kaitlin Gaiss and the Duke staff, in helping her overcome any lingering nervousness about her injury while quickly adjusting to the level of play in college lacrosse. She also says that the players’ chemistry and confidence in each other has gone a long way in her development as a freshman.
“Gaiss has been amazing,” Duryea says. “She’s been a great support system … And then having a really experienced defense has been really great for me because it allows me to focus on myself. Having them and knowing that they’ll do their job really lets me do my job.”
For all that she has accomplished this spring, Duryea says she is just grateful to be back in the crease. The experience of missing a full season and enduring a long rehabilitation period afforded her the opportunity to reflect on her passion for the game. It has also served as a gentle reminder to cherish her time with her teammates and the Duke program, both on and off the field.
“Now being back, it definitely makes me cherish every moment I have playing,” Duryea says. “It makes it more fun for me because I know that in a second it can be taken away. The road back to playing was really long. It was a big learning experience and I think it’s definitely showed me how special playing a sport, especially at this level, is — and how easily it can be gone.”