The traits most often used to characterize Donegal’s Rachel Robinson — determination, relentlessness, resiliency — are as apparent to the casual sports fan as they are to her coaches and teammates.
And as for her accomplishments on the athletic field, the word “unstoppable” comes to mind.
For the bulk of 2016, however, those same traits and laudatory adjectives have held even greater meaning for the senior field hockey star from Mount Joy.
On December 12 of last year, Robinson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee while playing basketball for the Indians, leaving her with little option but to have surgery in January.
The injury not only relegated Robinson to the bench for the remainder of the basketball season, but also kept the three-sport athlete off the softball diamond for the entirety of the spring season.
Yet this September has brought forth a renewal the spring never did.
After several months of rehab and a few weeks of practice, Robinson was able to join her teammates on the field hockey pitch for Donegal’s regular-season opener against Warwick on September 2.
“Let’s just say I’ve been waiting for this for, let’s see, eight months,” Robinson said afterward. “I was getting anxious; I don’t know what I would do without it.”
IN THE ZONE
While she didn’t factor into the scoring against Warwick, Robinson started and played vital minutes as the Indians opened their season-long defense of the 2015 L-L League title — not to mention back-to-back District 3 championships — with a 6-0 victory.
Having accumulated 50 goals over her first three seasons, all as a starter, Robinson nonetheless took over the role of center-back the last two years while also serving as captain.
In Robinson’s case, playing “back” means a lot of running up-and-down the pristine turf of the brand-new Donegal Athletic Complex, where she’ll go about unifying the lines of communication between veteran goalkeeper Katie Jean and a talented core of midfielders and forwards, including Mackenzie Allessie, Amanda Beck, Grace Miller, and Lily Saunders, all dynamic players in their own right.
Yet in all those actions, Robinson excels.
“This is my happy zone,” she admitted. “It sounds dumb, but yeah, this is where I can just play freely, I don’t have any stress. It’s just so much fun. The team, the coaches, the game… it’s something special.”
With the Indians leading Warwick 3-0 shortly after the half, Donegal coach Jess Shellenberger opted to pull Robinson for an extended period, having little reason to force the issue in the first game of the season.
“I want to protect her but I also want her to be out there because she wants to be out there,” Shellenberger said. “When I saw we got that three-goal lead I thought to myself, let’s rest a little. The end game here is further down the line. This is important today, we want to do well, but I want her to be one-hundred percent when we really need her.”
“It really helps that (Shellenberger) experienced an ACL tear as well,” Robinson said. “She knows exactly what I’m going through. Especially during practice, I’m easing into it.”
Firstly, Robinson had to be cleared to play. And before she could be cleared to play, she had to prove that her right leg was as stable as her left. And before that, of course, was the rehab.
“I knew physically I’d be strong but it was just mentally staying with it, myself, because I’m not used to sitting,” Robinson explained. “And (rehab) helped me, physically… getting more comfortable with my body and trusting it. It’s all mental.”
Robinson then took a Cybex Test, which measures joint strength, before her doctor could give her the green light.
The green light she got. And certainly for Robinson, green means go.
“I thought she looked great today, her warmup was outstanding,” Shellenberger said, marveling with the media at Robinson’s willingness to dive forward for a tip-in goal — during practice, no less.
“She’s getting there,” added the coach. “She’s not one-hundred percent, and I think it’s fitness related, you know, she just hasn’t been playing like everyone else has and doing all the running. We still have her doing some modified workouts when we condition, but there’s never going to be any less resolve or will.”
Perhaps the word that best describes Robinson is “kinetic.”
The simple joy of motion is what drives her. But so, too, does the opportunity to make her teams and teammates better.
In fact, it is likely the way she connects with others off the field that makes her so successful on the field.
“She’s actually vice-president of student council, I’m the advisor, so we are literally together all the time,” Shellenberger said. “She has a study hall when I have a course and she comes in and sits in there and asks if she can make copies for me and whatnot. She babysits my children, so… just a really fun-loving kid, a kid that everybody respects and appreciates.”
Robinson also tutors her fellow students in math. “Super bright,” Shellenberger put it.
“I have actually said to her, she’s probably the most laid-back division one, full-ride kid I’ve ever met,” offered the coach. “I like that about her. She’s a great kid, great family.”
Robinson comes from an athletic family, at that, including two older sisters: Amanda, who plays field hockey at Michigan State, and Katie, who played for and graduated from the University of Virginia, where Robinson is verbally committed to play next season.
“My family is awesome,” Robinson said. “My siblings were joking, like, you NEED competition in your life, you NEED to get back.”
Support came from UVA field hockey coach Michele Madison, as well.
“She was always contacting me, making sure I was okay,” Robinson said of Madison. “(Injury) is something you don’t really want your recruit to have happen but it happened. Really, mentally, she was like ‘you’re fine, just keep pushing through it, you’re the toughest person I know.’”
Before she heads off to college, however, Robinson has several opportunities still to come in her senior year, in particular a chance to rejoin the USA Under-19 National Field Hockey team during a tournament in December.
And there’s the possibility of basketball and softball just around the bend. Robinson, a selfless teammate, supported each team from the bench last season and watched as the Indians’ softball squad went all the way to the PIAA state semifinals — the same place the field hockey team left off a year ago.
“It was hard,” Robinson admitted. “Now, I’m not the one doing the work, I have to encourage and basically, development time, I could be like, alright, I’m helping them, I’m being more encouraging and it kind of gave me an insight, like, I want to get older, and I want to be a coach.”
As for now, though, Robinson and her teammates have big plans for the field hockey season.
“I can’t throw enough words at you to describe what she brings to this team,” Shellenberger said. “I’ve seen her grow up, I’ve coached her two older sisters, I’ve taught all the siblings in the family. It’s just the aura of Rachel Robinson growing up, and you know the football coach about weekly asks me if he can have her for the football team.”
Said Robinson, “I’m just glad to be back.”
So, too, is Donegal field hockey this fall — a team once again brimming with unstoppable potential.