It seemed like such a little thing.
When Catherine Zimmerman dove to head a soccer ball during a tournament for her club team in the spring of 2009, the ball hit just a little higher on her head than normal. It was just one of a multitude of times she had attempted to score a goal.
However, she would eventually leave the game with a headache that wouldn't stop. Her concussion symptoms knocked her off the field for her entire sophomore season.
Thankfully, the missed season was just a detour and, after a successful junior year, she is going into her senior season with confidence. The Madison High School standout will be one of the players to watch this season. There are other teams to consider such as Kinnelon, Villa Walsh, West Morris, Mendham, Hackettstown and additional players, too.
However, it will be difficult to find a more courageous player than Zimmerman.
"She's always been aggressive,'' Madison coach Kevin Lynott said. "As you play at that (higher) level, you become a little bit more aware and a little bit more astute. You saw the attributes in her because, physically, she was always able to compete. Losing her sophomore year was tough because she's the kind of player that Madison High School dreams of coming through.''
Zimmerman is the type of player that even when she's not involved in the play in practice always has a soccer ball bouncing on her foot. She wants to be active. Considering that she had to sit out for most of a season without touching a soccer ball, her absence from the game seems unfathomable even for her.
"For the first few months, it was just constant,'' Zimmerman said of the headaches. "If I was watching TV or laying down, I'd stand up (and get them). I wasn't supposed to do anything. I wasn't even supposed to watch the TV or play video games. It was the most frustrating thing I've ever dealt with. I couldn't do anything athletic for about six months. And then I was able to run and play soccer. Even when I started practicing, I wasn't able to have any contact for another three months.''
Concussions have become more and more of a medical issue in recent years with all sports. Schools have given the treatment of head injuries increasingly serious attention. When Zimmerman was finally able to return to the field last season, people were still concerned but, for her, it was more with a sense of relief than trepidation.
"It was a little scary but I was more excited and happy to be back on the field,'' Zimmerman said. "I missed the competitiveness because I'm a very competitive person. It was hard seeing everyone competing and playing and having fun while I was just sitting there watching.''
Although Madison played well without her, the Dodgers clearly missed such a consummate scorer. In her junior year, she finished with 12 goals and helped turn Madison into a consistent winner for the first time in years. Zimmerman is dangerous around the net and causes defenses problems in a variety of ways.
"She has a very good first touch and she can strike with both feet,'' Lynott said. "That's a talent you ask for any particular player, especially a striker. It doesn't matter whether it's right or left. She's going to take it.
"I think her speed is a little bit deceptive. I'm a believer in that she's very quick from zero to five or five to 10 yards. Some players could probably beat her in a sprint up to 30 yards but there aren't many players who can beat her in that zero to five yards and that's what she's got, that instinctive thing. She has the instincts. That sharpness of mind and that (burst) of speed."
Like many very good players, the most difficult problem may be getting the rest of the Dodgers to complement her style and take full advantage of her ability.
"The biggest problem I have this year is trying to get our girls to react off her and not stand and watch because they have the habit when Zim gets it of standing back and wondering what she's going to do,'' Lynott said. "You know she's going to be tightly marked in games and one of my challenges this year is getting the girls to play off her.''
Of course, Zimmerman is just focusing on playing. She has already given a verbal agreement to Providence College and is looking forward to playing BIG East soccer next fall. Now her focus is with the Dodgers. Katie McCarter, Carolyn McBrady, Melissa Joubert and several other Madison players have been part of Zimmerman's teams for years. A big senior year is among her high expectations.
"My strength is getting my teammates the ball and helping them do things,'' Zimmerman said. "Shooting is definitely one of my strengths, too. I work really hard to give myself options to score as well as help other teammates.
"We all work together pretty well, I think Katie McCarter and I have a connection because we started playing when were six and then we've been playing on and off for the last 10-11 years. We kind of know how each other plays. She works hard and gets to the spots she needs to be.''
Madison is just one of a number of teams that have great expectations this year. Here is a quick look at the girls soccer divisions of the Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference.
Expect Madison to battle with Morris Catholic for the division title. Natalie Migoya has graduated and has taken the finishing ability to score 37 goals last year with her. However, junior Tara Sobierajski is back. An exceptional midfielder, she can distribute 40 or so assists to other members of the Crusaders. Christina Nassany anchors the defense and Kayla Murphy is considered among the area's better goalies.
Parsippany is a dark horse but the Red Hawks have good seniors in key places. Tiffany Kelly is a capable scorer and defender Kacie Paul has a big foot in the back. This year's team is being coached by Greg Cleary.
Chatham also has a new coach in Chris Calveley and will be fine as long as Amanda Berntsen continues to play in the back. However, replacing the skills and game savvy of forward/midfielder Ellie Goepel will be a tall order.
Hanover Park and Pequannock should be in the mix but the current flooding might hit them harder than most and they could start slowly. Look for Dover to continue to improve. Defender Kayla Aragon has terrific quickness and Olivia Davidovich is a true scoring threat.
Even though they have lost six starters from last year's sectional title team, the Hackettstown Tigers are clear favorites. Katie Hutton and Amanda Aussems bring a wealth of talent back to Tara Repsher's team and the experience gained by the younger players during the state tournament run can only bode well for the future. The Tigers' main challenge should come from Kittatinny and Wallkill Valley. The Cougars lost to the Tigers three times last year and will be looking for a little revenge.
Kittatinny has developed into a consistent winner over the years and has a tight senior core this year. Wallkill Valley is pushing to move over the .500 mark and has one of the better midfielders in Sussex with Vanessa Bodossian roaming the field.
Jake Mull's Newton crew will rebuild after a rough year and will need to find replacements for Kim Overland and Jenny Mason. Dan Moylan, a former boys soccer coach at Lenape Valley, will take over the girls program. Hopatcong fields a young squad once again.
It's considered a three-team race. Villa Walsh had a breakthrough season in 2010, capturing the Morris County Tournament title for the first time in school history. It only gets harder this time around. Morris County Player of the Year Krista Longo has moved on and goals will be a little tougher to get. Julia Esposito, the team's second leading scorer, will move up from midfield to get the offense going. The Vikings are solid on defense with Lauren Belinski and Julianne Strelec among the returnees in the back.
Kinnelon is expecting to have another good year although it's hard to imagine the Colts without the scoring of Ashley Betts and the goalkeeping excellence of Hannah Steadman. They will score goals since it's time for Chalen Noble to assume more leadership this year.
Whippany Park also had some losses but the ability of sophomore Dina Sheira to create and connect should keep the Wildcats in most games. Mountain Lakes is a dark horse but they could pull some surprises. Mike Vivino's crew has worked in his system for the last few years and the talents of Maggie Glander, Katie Reese and Emma Harris are destined to come out. Butler will need to rebound and their midfield will have to step to overcome the loss of Rachel Vaccaro to graduation.
It seems pretty wide open. The Sussex contingent of Pope John and Vernon and High Point should all be competitive and fun to watch. Vernon is coming off an exceptional 22-0-2 season but graduated 14 seniors including Sussex County Player of the Year Kellianne Baumann.
Pope John is a junior-laden squad but senior Madison Flanagan holds the midfield together nicely. High Point has a solid core of seniors and has the momentum of last year's 11-5-3 season going for it. Don't count out Mount Olive. Lauren Caruso's squad showed vast improvement last year and many were impressed with the Marauders' play in the Denville Summer League. Nicole Amada and Victoria Portesy are juniors and should be able to create more problems for opponent's defenses.
Morris Hills will challenge opponents. Seniors Jaime Bertoli and Dana Castellano will bolster the offense and midfield. Michelle Mikhno is a four-year starter on defense. The Scarlet Knights are also excited about five freshmen they will use on varsity including some that will start. Expect Montville to be vastly improved. Morris Hills alum Dana Bertoli has revamped the Mustangs and the players seem to have bought into her system with enthusiasm. Charlotte Burnett's ability to hold the midfield together may be the key.
Sparta will try and rebound from an off year with new coach Jamie Barker. Jefferson is looking to regroup from last year's two-win season. Sophomore goalkeeper Danielle Beniulis and junior midfielder Katie Hatler are among the players the Falcons can build around.
This division is always tough to judge but look to West Morris and Mendham to be among the favorites. West Morris, last year's MCT finalists, brings back loads of experience. One the offensive end Jessica Angle and Megan Monaco (10 goals each) can score in a variety of ways and players like Amy McQuaide and Nicole Drzewinski are always in the action. The Wolfpack defense is strong, although they will have to find a goalie. Mendham will miss last year's goalkeeper Robin Chernow, but Faith Sugarman did get some varsity time last year. Carley Horan and Jamie Hofstetter stabilize the midfield and have good offensive skills. They will need them since standout goal scorer Nicole Graziano has moved on.
Roxbury and Morris Knolls can't be counted out. Both teams lost significant performers from last year's squad but have always had the resiliency to bounce back strong. Graduated midfielder Jess Musmanno was such a skilled performer for the Gaels that Roxbury might have to lift its game in all areas to achieve the same level of play. Expect the Golden Eagles to have a slow start because of the recent flooding but they have a solid core of returning players.
Randolph suffered a setback due to the season ending injury of Ashley Mariconda. They have five returning starters, including sophomore goalkeeper Mel Durbin who posted nine shutouts last year. Parsippany Hills and Morristown squads are still young but improving in the tough division.