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by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Kiley Merrill knew it was now or never.
The hard-luck Hudson senior field hockey player tried out for the National Futures Program even though she was recovering from a serious knee injury.
If Merrill impressed her coaches enough, she would have gotten a chance to play for a team that would participate in a national competition.
Merrill could only participate in the last two sessions, while her peers got much more work.
"That was the first time I played in six months," she said. "I thought my chances were pretty slim. When the results came out,
"I wasn't chosen at first. I went into [former Hudson head coach Jen Haney's] office and told her I didn't make it. She just told me if I gave 100 percent effort, I would have a shot."
Fortunately for Merrill, she made the team as an alternate.
"She just had knee surgery," Haney said. "That speaks volumes about her."
It sure did.
And such resilience is the reason why Merrill will continue playing on the collegiate level.
Merrill, an All-Ohio midfielder/forward, recently signed a national letter of intent to continue her academic and field hockey careers at Miami University in Oxford. She is leaning toward kinesiology as her major.
"Miami was always my top choice," Merrill said. "I met the coaches and the team and the campus was beautiful. It was a perfect fit."
Last year, the RedHawks finished 12-10 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament after winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship.
Merrill will join the team after finishing second on the team with 17 goals in 2013. Despite her injury, Merrill still finished with 39 goals and 20 assists during her career.
"I'm just going to my work my hardest," she said. "I'm just going to give it 100 percent and go in prepared. I would like to be on the field as soon as I can."
At one point, it was hard to imagine Merrill ever playing again after suffering that gruesome injury.
During Hudson's 3-2 win over backyard rival Western Reserve Academy in 2012, Merrill had to be carried off the field after an awkward fall. The injury took place just eight minutes into the game.
"I remember exactly when it happened," Merrill said. "It was the third time I had to get surgery. At that point, I was thinking, 'There is no way I can bounce back from this. But my parents and coaches really pushed me through it."
Of course, that process was anything but easy.
Not long after her trip to the hospital, Merrill started the lengthy, difficult road to recovery.
"I was on crutches for about two months," she said. "A month after that, I ran for the first time. I started off slow, but I ended up running 2-12 miles. I was told to just run a lap or two, but I didn't want to stop."
At that point, Merrill knew she was going to be back to her old self in no time. Eventually, the pain went away and Merrill got back to playing the sport she loved.
"I didn't have any complications after that," she said. "At that moment, I knew I was going to be back. I wasn't going to give up."
When Merrill returned to the field, it seemed like she never left.
Her lethal shot and array of stick skills baffled opposing defenders throughout the 2013 season.
Thanks to Merrill and her talented teammates, the Lady Explorers had a 12-game winning streak and finished 13-3.
"It was unbelievable," Merrill said. "I remember we lost a couple in a row my junior year and we cried after the games. My senior year was just crazy."
Haney knew Merrill had what it took to be an elite player. She was even more impressed with her perseverance.
"She dislocated her knee during her freshman year," Haney said. "She still had 14 goals. She is a very special person. I would consider a success story because of her history with injuries."
Merrill doesn't think she would have been able to come back as strong as she did without Haney, who retired after last season.
"Coach Haney and [assistant coach] Laurie [Wilkins] are like parents to me," Haney said. "I don't know where I'd be without them. She made me mentally strong.
Like any mischievous teenager, Merrill and her teammates had moments when they drove their coaches crazy.
"We had a senior-led run at Hudson Springs [Park]," Merrill said. "We were supposed to run it, but we decided to just walk the course. We didn't think our coaches would find out. They did find out and they made us run the course every day for a week."
Since the course was a three miles long, Merrill and her teammates learned their lesson.
It certainly showed throughout the season.
"Last year's team was the closest team I've ever been on," Merrill said.
Now, with all her injuries a distant memory, Merrill is anxious for bigger and better things. Still, though, she will always be reminded of her hardships.
But that may be a blessing in the long run.
"I have a four-inch scar on my knee," Merrill said. "But my knee doesn't bother me any more and I don't even think about it. Academically and athletically, I just want to be the best I can and reach my full potential."