WINCHESTER — Rachel Kingston perched herself on the turf at Manchester Field last Saturday afternoon, cheering on her Needham High soccer teammates as they cruised to a 2-0 win over the host Winchester High squad.
After Kingston tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during her club soccer season in the spring, the bench is where the Boston University-bound striker will remain for the rest of the fall; a mentally agonizing role, though she’s trying to make the best of it.
“It’s six months on the bench, but I’m trying to be positive and trying to learn from it,’’ said the 16-year-old junior, who had surgery on April 8.
Kingston’s injury occurred without contact, as is the case with roughly 70 percent of ACL tears, according to the National Library of Medicine. Her foot planted, the cleat got stuck in the turf while her body kept going, then came the awkward twist and the loud pop.
Needham High coach Carl Tarabelli said he’s noticed a drastic rise in knee injuries over the past several years, calling it “an epidemic.”
Not only has he lost his star striker, but within the first two weeks of the season he lost center back Crea Baker-Durante and striker Olivia Greif to medial collateral ligament tears. They do not require surgery, and hope to be back by the postseason.
“It’s heartbreaking. Every game I go to, I look at the other bench and there’s somebody with a knee brace on,” said the 13-year Rockets head coach.
Dr. Martha Murray, an orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, confirmed ACL tears are on the rise, and cited an increase of participation in athletics, with many children being multiple-sport athletes.
She also said the injury is more common among females than males, with the ratio ranging from 2 to 1 to 8 to 1. She said there are multiple theories as to why young women are at greater risk, such as hormone levels during the menstrual cycle that may affect the strength of knee ligaments, or that females have wider hips than males, changing the angle of pressure on the joint.
Murray, also the codirector of the hospital’s female athlete program, said one key difference is that when boys go through puberty, they get taller and gain muscles mass, “but the girls tend to get taller and they have to work really hard to get their muscles stronger, so they are trying to control these longer legs with larger lever-arms around the knee, with not as much muscles as the boys have.”
According to Murray, the peak age for women to tear an ACL is between 15 and 19 years old. She said the best way to avoid ACL injuries is perform specific exercises targeting the knee, and she encourages coaches to download a training program for soccer players age 14 and older posted online by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
However, Tarabelli said, he’s been having his girls perform various knee exercises yet the injuries just keep coming.
“I’ve dedicated myself to ACL and MCL tear prevention, and in all of our warm-ups we work on it,” said Tarabelli. “I’m getting these exercises off the Internet, trying to build up muscle mass around these girls’ knees. . . I’m just going out of my mind right now.”
Kingston said she is concerned about her teammates’ injuries as well, but added, “There’s definitely ways to prevent it. If you’re religious with your training, it’s not going to happen.”
One of Needham’s Bay State Conference rivals, defending Division 1 state champion Newton North High, is hurting too; Anna Nesgos and Katie Nugent — who scored the game-winning penalty kick in the state final last fall — both are sidelined for their senior seasons with torn ACLs.
For Nesgos, it’s her second straight year with an ACL injury; she tore her left one last October, then tore her right ACL and broke her femur in the Tigers’ first preseason game in August.
“It was devastating because I had just gone through the whole long process, and what got me through it last time was knowing I’d be able to play my senior season,” said the 18-year-old striker.
That anticipation had been building up for a year and four days for Wayland High junior captain T.T. Fletcher, who finally returned to game action on Sept. 20 for the first time since tearing her ACL in a game last fall.
With Fletcher sidelined by the injury, the Warriors went 4-8-2 last season. Wayland coach Guy Enoch said although Fletcher was an underclassman, she was “still one of the more dominant players and a leader on the team.”
Fletcher then missed her entire basketball season, and when she returned to her first lacrosse practice in the spring, she suffered a partial tear of her repaired ACL within the first 10 minutes, setting her back further.
This fall she is wearing a bulky knee brace, which she admits is uncomfortable, but she is getting used to it, and said she is “happier than ever” to be back out on the pitch.
Murray said about half of injured athletes will recover within six months of having surgery, while others may take nine months to a year. But nearly all athletes should be able to return to their respective sports, she said.
Having gone through the grueling rehab and physical therapy, Fletcher said the best approach is to just stay positive.
“I found that keeping my attitude in check and always staying positive made everyone else around me happier and made myself happier,” said the center mid, who now leads her team in knee strengthening exercises before every practice.
“Whereas when you get down in the dumps, you’re going to stay down there and it’s going to make your recovery that much harder.”