From focusing on soccer throughout high school to walking onto and suffering a number of knee injuries in her time on the lacrosse team at Slippery Rock University, senior defender Olivia Beach’s story is a unique one.
Beach began college as just a student, deciding to attend Slippery Rock as an excuse not to have to play D-III soccer for Shenandoah University in Virginia. Once on campus, she joined club lacrosse, but realized that the team didn’t match her speed or seriousness. It was then that she sent an email to the previous coach of the program, gauging her chances of being a walk-on.
After a two-week tryout period, she was welcomed aboard. It wasn’t all of what she expected.
“The culture was really toxic,” Beach said. “I was excited to make it, but I was kind of nervous and upset based on how people were treating each other.”
Even after going 12-6 with an appearance in the PSAC tournament in 2017, Beach said the previous coach’s contract was not renewed. Kelsey Van Alstyne, a former captain at Bloomsburg University, was brought on as her replacement.
At first, Van Alstyne said, Beach was soft-spoken.
“My initial impression was that [Olivia] was incredibly hard-working and driven, but I can’t say much beyond that because she really, I think, was kind of scared of me for quite some time,” the third-year head coach said.
Under Van Alstyne’s direction, the atmosphere changed for the better.
“It’s the heart of the program,” Beach said. “It’s who we are as a team because, now, we don’t have any hierarchy; everyone is very welcoming of each other. I think, with that, we’re all very open with each other and honest.”
Beach was still trying to work her way off of the bench when she felt a familiar pain. As a high school junior in 2015, Beach tore her left ACL and meniscus. Now, three years later and only a handful of games into her senior season, she tore both the ligament and cartilage in her other knee. Eight months later, she reinjured her right meniscus once again.
“The most painful thing for me was just realizing that I’d have to go through such a long journey again to rehab and get back to where I was,” Beach said.
However, Beach said she’s thankful for the experience and how it got her into the physical shape that she’s in now. In her return, Beach struggled with realizing her limits and being self-aware so as not to hurt herself again. The most difficult part of getting back to form, Beach said, was “figuring out when I could push myself and [realizing] it was too much and speaking up.”
Encouragement from her coaches, teammates and athletic trainer Molly Parsons, and the hungry thought of getting the stick back in her hand pushed her through workouts on a daily basis. In a way, the setbacks served as a blessing.
“They taught me an appreciation for just the simple things in life, such as walking or contracting a quad,” Beach said. “You don’t really realize how much just being able to walk does for you. Because, when you’re sitting on the couch for the entire day, not being able to do anything, you miss it a lot.”
While out, Beach played a supportive role. She would fetch equipment or water and cheer her teammates on during drills.
“Being on the sidelines, you get a different point of view and you can see some things that people may not see on the field,” Beach said.
A half-dozen other girls, including scorers Tia Torchia and Jasey Sanders, also dealt with knee ligament ailments throughout the campaign.
“Just in general, my first year here with so many ACLs was just awful,” said Van Alstyne. “There was such a range of the kids who got hurt and their effort in coming back. [Olivia] worked so hard, so when she started to say at the end of that fall semester, ‘My knee doesn’t feel good’ […] it was really tough because she had been playing really well and was in the conversation of starting.”
That offseason, the big change in the team’s training regimen was the focus on speed and agility. Van Alstyne’s husband, Chris, was added as the team’s strength and conditioning coach. He would come twice a week to work with players on their deceleration, change of direction and plyometrics.
Back on the field, injury-free, Beach feels she’s in the best shape of her career. Van Alstyne agrees.
“She’s the strongest girl on the team,” Van Alstyne said. “She probably has the best technique and the quickest first step. That was not her her sophomore year when I knew her pre-injury.”
Also, according to the coach, Beach is the team mom and team bruiser, both in practice and against foes, such as in her first collegiate start in a 12-8 victory at the University of Findlay last Saturday.
Up until that point, Beach had only played in 18 games, notching a single shot, picking up nine ground balls and forcing three turnovers.
“For a walk-on who didn’t get any time because of injury, and, on top of it, not being in this super tight-knit group, it’s been very rewarding from my aspect to see how integral she is as a senior,” Van Alstyne said. “I want her to walk away just thinking this was the best season in any sport in her life and that she sacrificed and [left] a lasting legacy on this program.”