For Virginia's Makenzy Doniak, Scoring Touch Is A Healing Touch

Matt Riley/University of Virginia

Makenzy Doniak was the leading goal scorer on Virginia teams that reached the College Cup in each of the past two seasons.

Kylie Doniak recalled that some of those closest to her weren't sure how she would react to watching soccer again. A four-year starter in the midfield for the University of Texas, she would testify that one of her games was the last clear memory she had before the night of Feb. 3, 2012, when a drunk driver struck her as she walked and nearly killed her.

But eight months after the accident, eight months into what would truthfully be years of recovery, she sat in the stands in Austin and looked out over the same field on which she had played so many times. It wasn't difficult to be reminded of her past. Being there was what she wanted more than anything because every run her younger sister Makenzy made for the University of Virginia against Texas was also proof that life goes on.

"When I was just in those stands watching her, I was so calm," Kylie said. "I just felt really at ease once I saw her on the field. Of course I'm proud of her, but it really just felt like, [for] myself, that's just what healed me. Just seeing her out there, I felt like 'OK, there's some part of me that's still on that field.' As much as people think I should be done, I'm still out there running with that little blond head running around."

The blond head she will see running around this week (Makenzy's strained hamstring willing), when Virginia plays games at UCLA and Pepperdine near the Doniaks' home, isn't so little anymore. The youngest of the sisters, four years younger than Kylie and six years younger than Alyssa, Makenzy is a senior at Virginia who has matured into one of the best college soccer players in the country. She was the leading goal scorer on teams that reached the College Cup in each of the past two seasons. She began this season tied for the most career goals among active Division I players. She represented the United States in last year's FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup, the sport's signature youth competition. She will almost certainly be one of the first players selected in the next entry draft in the National Women's Soccer League.

All of the sisters were good, good enough not just to play Division I soccer but to excel. The youngest is the best.

"She's an extraordinary athlete," said Steve Swanson, her coach at Virginia and also an assistant with the U.S. team that won the World Cup this past summer. "It's rare that you see somebody with the strength that she has, and you couple it with the speed that she has and then you add an extraordinary change of pace. And she's agile. She's got an athletic package that you just don't see very often that allows her to get into certain situations, especially as a forward, that are difficult for defenders to deal with."

With respect to talent, Makenzy is as well provisioned as anyone could be while in the unenviable position of replacing Morgan Brian as the centerpiece of Virginia's title aspirations. It was Brian, with ample help from former All-American and current playoff-bound NWSL rookie starter Danielle Colaprico, who excelled in the spotlight as a two-time Hermann Trophy winner and nearly guided the program to its first championship before helping the U.S. win the World Cup.

Makenzy also knows enough to know that isn't really a challenge at all. It's just an opportunity to play soccer.

What Makenzy encounters as her time in Charlottesville nears a conclusion isn't a challenge, not like what she confronted when she arrived as a freshman. It was Kylie's body and mind battered in the accident, and she who persevered through the painful recovery, but an entire family had to figure out what came next.

Go back again to what Kylie saw as she watched Makenzy play in that game against Texas. Now rewind eight months earlier to what Makenzy saw when she first entered Kylie's hospital room. She had been in bed at home in California the previous night when she heard her mom answer the phone in another room, heard the fear and panic in her voice. Alyssa was home, too, so she deduced that something had happened to Kylie. The emotion she heard could only be about one of them. She sank to her knees and waited.

Matt Hempel/UT Athletics

Kylie Doniak was a four-year starter at Texas before a drunk driver turned her life upside down.

By the next night she and Alyssa were in the Austin hospital where Kylie had been taken with serious injuries to much of her body, from her head to broken bones in her leg. She was on a ventilator, with brain swelling one of the most immediate concerns.

"I didn't know what to expect, what she would look like," Makenzy recalled. "She wasn't to the point where she was unrecognizable, but she was definitely beat up. I didn't like seeing her like that at all."

As with any collection of siblings, especially ones as competitive as three soccer players born to parents who were former college athletes, there were shifting allegiances among the sisters as they grew up. Given the age difference, Alyssa was as much a second mom as a sister to Makenzy, at least until the maturity gap closed with age. It was Kylie who both chronologically and temperamentally found herself in the middle of things. She was the one who played with Alyssa but was also around to be part of the same club, if not team, as Makenzy.

"Kylie is the most outgoing, boisterous one, and then I'm pretty loud, too," Alyssa said. "Makenzy is definitely the quietest, shyest one out of all of us. ... It's hard, when you have two really loud, outgoing older sisters, you kind of just hang out in the background. That's Makenzy. That's what she does.

"But when you really get to know her, she's just as loud and crazy as we are."

Cari Roccaro, a teammate on the American squad that competed in the Under-20 World Cup, and again this past summer on the U-23 national team, seconded that thought.

"She is extremely shy until she gets comfortable," Roccaro said. "Then she can be wild. She can put on the dance moves, she can tell the jokes. If you looked at her and you weren't in a closer setting ... you would say she's really quiet. But then when you get to know her, she's a maniac. She's really fun to be around and full of laughter."

For someone so cautious outside of her comfort zone, choosing to cross the country to attend Virginia was a bold decision. The school wasn't initially on her list, but during a visit something about the campus, the coaches and the team convinced her it was worth stepping out of her comfort zone. But all of that was before the accident, which occurred when Kylie was a senior at Texas and Makenzy was a senior in high school.

Courtesy of Alyssa Doniak

Kylie Doniak, left, has relied on her sisters Alyssa, center, and Makenzy during her recovery.

For the family, fear was the most immediate state of being in the aftermath of the accident. Fear at first about whether Kylie would make it, eventually replaced by the fear of who she would be if she recovered. But as fear subsided, as Kylie returned to California after six weeks, the daunting scope of recovery set in (the driver who struck her and two other pedestrians who escaped with lesser injuries was sentenced to 14 years in prison).

The journal entries Alyssa wrote during that summer make it clear how difficult a time it was for both Kylie and the family. Even as her body slowly recovered to the point that she could go to the gym and play racquetball with her sisters, Kylie struggled with memory loss, pronounced mood swings and outbursts. In recalling one such moment, she described the frustration of sitting on a couch and struggling with a workbook testing her recall of basic shapes and colors, all while on some level also aware that she was a college senior who had been close to graduating. To even try to imagine that sense of fractured reality is disorienting. To live it must be tenfold as harrowing. And barely less so to see it happening to your sister or daughter, especially as Kylie struggled to accept help from outside that closest circle.

Every time I step on the field, I'm inspired by her. She loves soccer, loves playing. So for her not to be able to do that again, I know I can't take it for granted because it can be easily taken away. She inspires me every day, not even with soccer, just to live.
Makenzy Doniak on her sister, Kylie

Makenzy didn't attend any summer activities at Virginia before the start of her first year, choosing to stay in California for a few extra weeks. As Kylie continued to recover, as her parents tried to return to their jobs and as Alyssa took a year off from teaching to stay with Kylie, Virginia must have seemed ever more distant. There were plenty of good soccer programs in California that would have welcomed her with open arms. While he noted that he and Makenzy never got as far as discussing it, Swanson said there would have been no hesitation on the school's part in releasing her from her commitment to stay closer to home.

Among those pushing her to follow through on what she wanted was Kylie.

"I didn't pick a California school, and that was what I wanted," Kylie said of choosing Texas. "I didn't want Kenzy to feel held back because of me."

There were challenges, a "transitional period" as Swanson put it, while Makenzy adapted to a new environment and tried to shed her natural reserve around new teammates. But in addition to growing as a striker, the natural physical gifts her coach mentioned accentuated by a better and better feel for tactical nuances, she grew into herself. There may have been guilt, there was surely worry, but at some point, she had to live the life in front of her in Virginia.

"I can only really believe that it was totally God's purpose for her," Alyssa said. "If she was closer to home, she would have been a lot more affected by the day-to-day struggles that we go through. ... We've always felt like Makenzy needs to go and experience her college life and be a college athlete. She doesn't need to be coming home every weekend, the things that she would feel like she should be doing if she lived closer."

Three and a half years after the accident, life, if it hasn't returned to normal, has then settled into a new normal. To see Kylie walking down the street, Makenzy said, you wouldn't know anything had happened to her. But there are challenges, some that may never cease. As a result of the injuries to her brain, Kylie still suffers short-term memory issues. Those close to her have learned to write things down for her, although Kylie said she depends on those visual cues less often as time passes. She graduated from Texas and works as an instructional aide in a local school, throughout the day shadowing a disabled student to help him manage his workload. She is keenly aware of the frustrations and challenges of going through the world on a slightly different frequency than many.

She enjoys working with people. If her experiences help, she'll use them. If her story helps, she'll tell it. It remains her life.

"She is recovering bits and pieces of herself, but she is also discovering her new self, post-accident," Makenzy explained. "She is kind of adjusting to her strengths and weaknesses now. My relationship with her, it's like it has always been. It's fun. We laugh, we fight, everything sisters do. But I would also say there are some more struggles to it because of some of her struggles. It's building and rebuilding [the relationship]."

Kylie is never shy to offer her younger sister advice, as she always has. Sometimes it's about faith. Sometimes it's about soccer.

"Every time I step on the field, I'm inspired by her," Makenzy said. "She loves soccer, loves playing. So for her not to be able to do that again, I know I can't take it for granted because it can be easily taken away. She inspires me every day, not even with soccer, just to live."

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